14:47 02 March 2013
Using solar power to generate electricity for the home is viewed with scepticism by many of us in the UK. 'What if it's cloudy?' springs to mind as an obvious question, and there are others: Can I rely on the supply? Is it worth the hefty initial outlay? Am I letting myself in for a lot of up-keep and ongoing expense?
But perhaps we need to change our outlook. 'Alternative' sources of energy such as solar will become increasingly important as the fossil fuels we rely on at the moment become scarcer and therefore more expensive. There have even been grim predictions of power cuts as the UK struggles to import sufficient supplies of the natural gas we use to fire our power stations.
So maybe it is time to have a serious look at solar power - especially as the government will actually pay you for generating and 'exporting' power to the National Grid.
So let's answer some of the common questions raised on this hot topic...
Does solar power work if it's not sunny?
Yes. Today's solar power technology is efficient enough to generate electricity even when it's cloudy. But clearly it works more effectively when the sun is shining - and it doesn't work at night!
In the UK, year-round self-sufficiency isn't realistic, so converting to solar power doesn't mean you can cut yourself off from the National Grid - you'll still need a traditional energy supplier. But you should be able to satisfy a significant proportion of your electricity needs.
How much does it cost to install?
The more solar panels you have, the more power you'll generate - but the bigger your initial outlay will be. Solar power specialist Engensis says the average UK household uses 3,000 to 4,000 kWh (Kilowatt hours) of electrical energy per year and that a typical 2kWp (Kilowatts peak) solar installation (which uses roughly 12 square metres of roof) will produce around 1,700 kWh of energy per year.
So to cover all of a household's energy requirements you'd need approximately 5kWp of solar modules - fair enough if you've got a big enough roof, but for smaller properties the shortfall would have to made up from other sources (or by improving energy efficiency in the home).
Installing solar panels will cost anywhere from £4,000 to £10,000 depending on the size of the array. This is a very competitive market, however, so it's worth getting several quotations to find the best deal - but make sure you're satisfied with the technical and customer service credentials of your provider, and don't necessarily go for the cheapest option.
When searching for a company look out for the REAL Assurance scheme and the Microgeneration Certification Scheme, which cover pre-sales activity, contracts, completion of orders and after-sales care, as well as complaints.
What savings can I expect?
According to the Energy Saving Trust, a 3.5kWp system can generate around 3,000kWh of electricity a year - about three quarters of a typical household's electricity needs (saving over a tonne of carbon dioxide every year to boot). So you could easily halve your electricity bill depending on your usage.
You can also generate money via the government's Feed-In Tariff (see below). And you should be able to add several thousand pounds to the price of your property if you sell.
Tell me about the Feed-in Tariff
The government supports the use of solar power generation through the Feed-in Tariff (FIT). This has two elements:
•Generation tariff: here, your main energy supplier pays you a set rate for each unit (or kWh) of electricity you generate. The tariff levels are guaranteed for the period of the tariff (up to 20 years) and are index-linked.
•Export tariff: you can sell electricity you generate but don't use yourself at a rate of 4.5p per kWh for each unit you export back to the grid. The intention is to install meters to measure amounts exported, but currently the amount it is estimated to be is 50% of the electricity you generate.
•Once you are receiving Feed-In Tariffs, the rate you get will increase in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI). You can find out more about the FIT arrangements from the Energy Saving Trust (www.energysavingtrust.org.uk).
Is the installation process lengthy and disruptive?
The size of your array will determine how long the work takes, but you can expect it to take three days (including time to erect and dismantle scaffolding). Good installers reckon they can complete the task without the need for redecoration.
If you need to carry out routine maintenance or repairs on your roof after installation you'll need to get in touch with the original installer (or another accredited firm) to have the panels temporarily removed.
If you have panels installed, check with your home buildings insurer to see if you need extra cover. Many will not increase your premium, but it is best to tell them you've had the work done in case you have to make a claim at any point.
Will I need planning permission?
It's worth checking, particularly if you are in a conservation area. And you may struggle if you want to fit an array to a listed building. Your local council website should have the information you need.
You can read more about solar power here.
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