Architecture Magazine

Are Free Solar Panel Offers Any Good?

By The_woodlouse @the_woodlouse
There's nothing exciting to report about the bungalow plans; our planning application has been given a reference number by the district council but not yet allocated a case officer.  If we get any real news I'll report it here...
So here's a relevant if slightly tangential blog about the merits or otherwise of the increasing number of free solar panel offers - companies offering to install photovoltaic solar panels for free on your roof, in theory giving you the benefit of free electricity.  I keep coming across these and a few people have asked me about them.  Sparked by the latest request for comment (specifically about these people: A Shade Greener) I found myself giving a rambling answer and thought I'd try and edit it into more coherent form to post here. The free solar companies finance the panels they fit by using the Feed-in-Tariff/FIT (for more about the FIT and planned changes to it please see here: Solar Rush; or for more general FIT info this site is useful -  The FIT is in two parts: payment for all electricity produced by your solar panels - even that which you use yourself, and a bonus payment for electricity you don't use that gets exported to the grid.
On top of that there should be a saving on your electricity bill when you use electricity from the panels rather than importing it from the grid.
My understanding is that the free panel companies install and own the panels and receive both parts of the FIT. You get any saving from using power generated on your roof.  This can be worthwhile but it depends on how you manage your electricity use.
The panels will only generate electricity during daylight, which tends to be when domestic electricity use is lowest.  In order to make use of the free electricity from the solar panels you need to use more power then, for example by running washing machines, dishwashers or other power-hungry equipment during the day.  Any electricity you use at night will be from the national grid and you'll be paying for it.  With a bit of planning and use of timer switches it is possible to make better use of the free daytime electricity, but if you continue to consume most power after dark you will get very little personal benefit from the solar panels on your own roof.
If you are able to pay for solar panels yourself and so receive the FIT payments, it means you benefit financially regardless of when you use most electricity.  Clearly you'd save even more money if you use your own power as much as possible, but you're getting paid in any case (although the time taken to make back the cost of your system will double when the planned FIT changes come in). In terms of environmental benefit, it makes no difference whether you use power from panels on the roof yourself or whether someone else does via the grid - the panels are still contributing to increased renewable energy use and decreased fossil-fuel use.  That comes with a caveat though: a solar array is no substitute for using less electricity in the first place.  For exmple energy efficient lighting will help reduce your power bill and associated environmental impact, considering it is used mostly after dark when no solar panel will generate electricity. In summary: I think the free solar panel offers can be beneficial, especially if you can't afford to pay for panels yourself, can organize your electricity use to consume most power during the day and least at night (which with a bit of planning can be done to a degree, but is the opposite of standard domestic energy use), and if you take measures to reduce your electricity use overall anyway.
I notice that A Shade Greener think the FIT changes are "a good thing".  It is likely that the changes will lead to fewer people installing their own solar panels (as it will now take around 14 years to recoup the cost of a 2.8kw system - covering 20 square metres and costing around £9000).  Free solar panel companies are in a position to capitalise on this.  Whilst this still presents some benefits for householders, and will still add to the total renewable energy contribution to the national grid, it seems a shame that increasingly large companies will benefit from the FIT instead of green-minded individuals and families.

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