Are solar panels worth purchasing?

21-11-2017 Back



  
There are two types of solar panels – solar PV panels used to generate electricity, and solar thermal panels that are used to heat water.

This guide is focused specifically on solar PV panels.

 
  

In most instances, solar panels are definitely worth the investment

Solar panels offer an affordable, sustainable energy source that will lower your electricity bill, offer you a reliable source of energy, help you do your bit for the environment and make you money in the process.

Despite this, there are still plenty of misconceptions about solar panels. Though the installation cost is not insignificant, it is offset through the savings you make and the payment you receive from the Feed-in-Tariff, a Government backed scheme which rewards householders and businesses for investing in renewable energy technologies.

Alongside this, solar panels can actually add value to your home. The financial benefits alongside the environmental impact of solar panels make them an appealing addition to a home.



The cost of installation is high but less than what most people think

The main drawback to installing solar panels is the installation cost which is typically around £5,000 to £8,000. Though this isn’t inexpensive, this is significantly less than it used to be. Just seven years ago an average 4kW system would cost around £15,000.

Though the upfront cost is a few thousand pounds, installing solar panels should be considered a long-term investment or a way to add value to your home if you are looking to sell, as well as a method to reduce your household’s overall carbon footprint.

However, not all homes are suitable for solar panels. You need to have available roof space free from shadows and obstacles. And for the best results, your roof should face towards the south (although they will still work on East and West facing roofs).



The benefits still far outweigh the disadvantages

Considering the fact that you actually make money out of your solar panels, and solar technology is improving so that it will be more effective in areas with less sun, the benefits still far outweigh the disadvantages in most cases.

The advantages of solar panels

-    Reduces electricity bills
-    Payments through the Feed-in-Tariff
-    Delivers a 'return on investment' over time
-    Increases the value of your home
-    Helps the environment
-    Installation is relatively straightforward
-    On-going maintenance is low
-    Solar panels last a long time
The disadvantages of solar panels

-    Solar panels in the UK do not produce constant electricity due to the climate (though technology is now available to help improve this)
-    The installation cost is still reasonably high, though this is drastically decreasing year on year
-    Some properties are not suitable (e.g. those with limited roof space, shaded areas or North facing roofs)

 


The financial benefits of installing solar panels

•    Yearly payments of approximately £200 (see below for exact breakdown)
•    Reduced bills of approximately £70 (based on information provided by the Energy Saving Trust)
•    Increased property value

 

The Feed-in-Tariff

The Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) is a Government-run subsidy where you get paid for the energy your solar panels produce. Your energy supplier makes the payments to you every quarter.

The FIT scheme only covers renewable technologies that generate electricity, like solar PV systems. (For solar thermal panels, there is a similar scheme called the Domestic RHI which supports renewable heat technologies).

The FIT scheme is designed to incentivise the use of a sustainable energy source. You get paid even when you use the energy yourself. This payment is known as the generation tariff – a set rate for each unit of electricity generated. Once your system is registered, the tariff levels are guaranteed for the entire period of the tariff (up to 20 years) and are index-linked.

Currently you get 4p per kWh of electricity generated if your solar PV system is below 10kW (most domestic systems will be under 10kW), and 4.22p for systems between 10-50kW.

The average 4kW solar PV system in the south of England can produce 3,800 kWh, while in Scotland it is approximately 3,200 kWh per year. This amounts to £152 in the south and £128 in Scotland, per year in generation payments.

For the north of England and Yorkshire, output and generation payments will be somewhere between these two figures.

Where you don’t use all the energy generated by your panels, you get extra payments known as the export tariff. In effect, you sell electricity back to the grid. The current export tariff rate is 4.85p per unit of electricity.

According to the Energy Saving Trust, at current generation and export tariff rates for a 4kW array, total savings amounts to between £235 and £250 savings in London, £210 to £220 in Manchester, and £195 to £210 in Scotland, per year on average.

You will also save money on your electricity bills by using solar power, so your overall savings will be even higher!

Keep in mind that the tariffs fluctuate yearly and are set by the government so could go up or down over time. However, the tariff you are offered when you install your solar panels is guaranteed for 20 years.



Reducing your bills

Once you have a solar PV system in place you will be able to utilise the electricity generated from your panels before using the electricity supplied from the national grid. This means your overall electricity bill is likely to reduce. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that for a 4kW system installed in England, Scotland or Wales, you can expect a yearly saving of approximately £70.  

There are also methods you can use to ensure you make the most of your solar panels by using the electricity your system generates during the day.

Solar batteries are also available, allowing householders to store the energy generated from their panels and use it when there is no daylight. This will also contribute to lower electricity bill costs. Solar battery technology is relatively new, but it is improving all the time and becoming more and more affordable.


 

Increasing the value of your home

Research suggests that solar panels actually increase the desirability and thus the value of your home. A survey undertaken by ING Direct found that solar panels are one of the most desired extra features of a home. A previous report released by the government also states that fitting solar panels can increase house prices by up to 14%.

Solar panels will improve the EPC rating of your house which will increase overall value. The new homeowners will benefit from lower electricity bills and also FIT payments that will continue to be paid every quarter.

The significant environmental impact of solar panels will also add to the desirability of the house for many buyers.







Solar is a sustainable energy source

Solar panels provide a sustainable energy source that mitigates a household’s negative impact on the environment. For many solar panel customers, this is one of the most compelling reasons to install them.

Solar power is very much fit to serve our collective energy needs. According to the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, the amount of energy produced by the sun far exceeds existing and projected human energy demands (p.2). The International Energy Agency projects that solar power could generate 22% of the world’s electricity by 2050. Change is already taking place. In 2016 more power came from solar panels in the UK between April and September than it did from coal stations. So if you install solar panels you’ll become part of an already substantial movement towards sustainability.

What’s more, solar power is an incredibly reliable energy source – unlike fossil fuels, it won’t run out – as long as there is daylight, the power is available! The next step in harnessing this huge energy source is increasing uptake of solar technology, improving the technology itself and increasing access to the technology.

You can do your bit by installing solar panels on your home, thus helping to take advantage of an underused energy source. By taking this measure you become part of a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly future.



The carbon impact of solar panels

The current standard method for assessing the environmental impact of energy production is to measure each energy technology by how much carbon it emits into the atmosphere. Reliable measures will take into account not only carbon emitted during use, but carbon emitted during the manufacturing of the technology.

Fossil fuel energy produces high carbon emissions when in use, whereas solar energy produces almost none, but does have a minimal carbon footprint during the manufacturing of the panels. The graph below, produced by researchers at Imperial College London, demonstrates just how significant the carbon emission difference is between solar PV systems and fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.

Source: Solar power for CO2 mitigation, Jenny Nelson, Ajay Gambhir and Ned Ekins-Duakes, Grantham Institute for Climate Change Briefing paper No 11, January 2014

The average person in the UK emits 9.66 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – this is the equivalent of 23,676 miles driven by an average car. Switching to solar will save between 1,420kg to 1,710 kg of carbon depending on where you live and your individual habits. This is the equivalent of 2,590 miles driven by an average car or at highest saving levels, 18% of the average per capita (person) emission in the UK. *

*Calculated according to data from World Bank Data, published by The Guardian, carbon savings published by Energy Saving Trust and estimated equivalencies from US Environmental Protection Agency. UK per capita use at 9.66 metric tonnes/9660kg, highest approximate saving at 1710kg.





Installation and maintenance

Costs

According to our own research, installation costs are still considered the main barrier to getting solar panels fitted. This is understandable – the cost of installation is without doubt a factor to consider. However, solar technology is constantly improving, which means this cost is rapidly decreasing. In 2010 the average cost for a 4kW system was around £15,000. Today this is just £6,000.

The actual technology of solar panels is very reliable. They need very little maintenance and parts last for at least 20 years (normally much longer) without wearing out or becoming inefficient, meaning ongoing maintenance costs will be next to nothing.

The inverter (the unit that converts the solar energy into electricity) is the only part of the system that might need replacing earlier than the other parts. It needs to be installed in a safe area where it won’t be subject to damp conditions that can affect its lifespan. An inverter will normally come with a guarantee of 5 years. Inverters vary in price but currently cost around £500 - £1000. This may seem a lot, but will be absorbed by the on-going savings you make by installing the solar PV system in the first place.



The installation process

Installation is easy and shouldn’t cause much disruption. Solar panels are conventionally fitted to roofs. There are various mounting options available and systems can be fit to different types of roofs. There are also ground mounted and wall mounted arrays which you could consider if you have available space.

Your installer will be able to hook up your system to the national grid and a meter will also be installed to allow you to monitor how much energy is being produced by your panels. Technology is also being developed to allow homeowners to monitor production via apps or online.



Maintenance

Solar panels need very little maintenance. The panels should be checked a few times a year for dirt or debris that needs to be removed. Panels can be cleaned by using a garden hose to spray the surface. Make sure you do this in the morning or evening when the panels are not at their most active – spraying cold water onto very hot solar panels can cause them to crack.




How long will the panels last?

Solar panels are very robust and really endure. Because they have no moving parts they are incredibly reliable and require very little maintenance. Most solar PV systems come with a guarantee of 20 to 30 years. There’s no reason why your panels will stop working after this period. Some older cells have produced reliable electricity for over 40 years.

Since solar makes use of the sun, it’s a very reliable energy source. The technology of solar power is also incredibly reliable, with most solar panels lasting for a least 20 years — often far longer — without parts wearing out or performance being affected.



Despite misconceptions, solar panels can work in areas that don’t get much sun

Solar panels use energy from sunlight as opposed to direct sunlight so they can work on cloudy days or in areas that aren’t very sunny. They do not need sunlight shining directly on them all the time to work. It’s true there are some areas of the UK which are better suited to solar as they tend to get more direct sunlight. Areas with less sun will inevitably produce less energy.


Solar panels don’t work at night

Solar panels do not produce energy at night because they still need some sunlight to function. This doesn’t have to be a problem providing you adapt your behaviour accordingly. Householders that get the best results from their solar PV systems will use their electrical appliances during the day while their system is generating power. For example, putting washing on during daylight hours and charging electrical equipment during the day, rather than overnight. There are options for residents to consider when out of the house, such as setting appliances to work via timer switches or via mobile apps.


Do solar panels get less efficient over time?

Not really. According to a study by the US-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the average solar panel loses about half a percentage point of efficiency per year. So after 25 years, your panels should be operating at about 88% of their original capacity. This study should not be considered conclusive, however. One solar PV owner of 30 years found that their PV system was still performing to factory specifications, and sometimes outperforming those specifications. This was put down to the cool environment temperature that the panels were operating in – good news for UK-based solar panel owners!