Powering ahead with home solar

5th July 2010


Powering ahead 1

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  • Renewable ,
  • Generation

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IEMA

Dr Mark Everard reports on his family's decision to install Solar PV at home.

Well, we've gone and done it; we've taken the big first step towards energy self-sufficiency. We've put the deposit down on a photovoltaic (PV) array on our roof and the installation is now taking place.

Not such a big switch

Of course, we'd already switched to a ‘renewable energy' supplier. Not a market niche, extra cost ‘green tariff' offered by a big energy company fed largely by traditional ‘big generation' fossil and nuclear sources. Instead by a smaller operator that has the wind generation capacity to serve the entire load for which we are charged. The opening of the electricity market from 1990 onwards has allowed this.

The cost to us? Completely neutral, as the unit price is matched to our former supplier, a regional ex-monopoly with whom we'd stayed overlong due to inertia. The switch itself took just a phone call, followed up by typing a meter reading into the new supplier's website on the switch-over day three or so weeks later. The only other ‘disruption' is that our energy bills now have a different letterhead. Painless... cost-neutral... you know it makes sense!

The capital cost barrier

The PV decision was less of a no-brainer. When we started taking it seriously, there was a 50 per cent capital subsidy, but that vanished rather suddenly in February 2010. This effectively doubled the height of the investment hurdle, virtually overnight.

A shocker, as suddenly the outlay to my small family, decidedly not part of the well-heeled classes, was pretty much the equivalent of putting a brand new family car on the roof! It was also virtually a quarter of what I'd paid for the whole property nearly 20 years previously.

Resistance in the circuit

The council had also done their bit to maintain the status quo and inhibit green innovation, and done so with aplomb over a period of several years.

It started way back when house-scale wind turbines came on the market, and I'd applied for planning permission as part of a feasibility study. Permission was refused as we live in a Conservation Area. A string of letters was to follow, in which I'd asked what ‘conservation' meant (apparently it's about looks alone and not conservation as we know it), and I got no satisfactory answer as to how much a renewable energy source might blight a Jerry-built, mid-terrace ex-council house of no great architectural merit whilst others were festooned with satellite dishes and TV aerials for which no planning consent was required.

Finally, and surprisingly, the council relented under my constant pressure. However, my turbine had to be in the back garden below the roof line so that it was not visible from the road. My follow-up was a phone call asking, slightly in jest but more in pique, what permission I'd need for a flaming great hamster to run round a giant wheel to drive the turbine, ‘cos there was no way on earth that even a gale would turn it!

The PV planning saga was no more helpful, the council officials playing the ‘computer says no' game for months before I alerted them to the late-2009 easements to Permitted Development Rights put in place to facilitate the embedding of renewable energy to drive progress towards national obligations. An email from the council dated 15 January 2010 instructed me to "Please ignore all my advice previously given. Part 40 of the GDPO permits solar panels, I had failed to pick up on a sequent amendment. I apologise for any inconvenience I may have caused."

Hurrah! A breakthrough. (The writer had actually meant ‘General Permitted Development Order' or GPDO.) Responding to my later requests for a little clarification, a subsequent council email dated 5 February 2010 invited me to apply for "...a certificate of proposed lawful use - this application (fee £170) will confirm that planning permission is not required". My response was to file those emails carefully, replying to the effect that, since emails are admissible as evidence, I'd decline their kind offer to be paid £170 to print this same text out on headed notepaper!

One ‘bottom line' amongst three

But, of course, for all the ‘triple bottom line' rationale, my family's got to eat so the sums had to add up! The effective doubling of capital outlay - the ‘new car on the roof' price - did not make the decision easier.

There are three revenue streams to consider when making sense of the economic case. Firstly, energy generated by our roof that we then use saves 12p per unit of power that is not drawn down from the grid. Secondly, unused energy exported to the grid is paid for at 3p per unit. Thirdly, and most significantly, is the ‘feed in tariff' introduced by the Government from April 2010.

For those signing up for it in the first year, this nets 41.3p per unit generated, whether that energy is used or exported. Furthermore, the tariff is locked-in and index-linked for 25 years. The ‘feed-in tariff' will decline subsequently for new entrants year-on-year, reflecting anticipated efficiency improvements and economies of scale as the technology mainstreams.

And these are at current prices. Hands up if you think electricity will get cheaper over the next quarter-century?

What's it worth?

Of the four quotes we got, we went for the second-cheapest but the best overall in terms of seamless handling of hardware installation, hook-up to the supply network, paperwork checking with the council, warranties on all elements and arrangements with the energy supplier. Money was tight for us, and a big consideration, but overall service delivery mattered too.

A couple of our prospective suppliers told us that their main business came from older people realising that their spare cash was netting a fraction of a percent of interest, if that, whereas the return from PV panels was in the order of 6-12 per cent depending on output and capital outlay.

We were not in that ‘spare cash' situation, and other environmental values were significant in driving our decisions. But, at a projected 11-year payback period and an effective return of a fraction over nine per cent, there was sufficient economic justification for our chosen PV array.

Size matters

The scaffolding is up as I write, and the panels are being put on the roof and wired up.

One bit of advice I can give anyone interested is to ‘go large'. Maximising power output from the array will hike the initial cost but also increase annual output and associated returns. A second bit of advice is one I'll relay on from a friend in the panel manufacturing side of the business: treat suppliers as you would double glazing salespeople as the market is maturing, there is a lot of competition, and the overall quality of the whole package, warranty and service really matters.

We certainly met prospective suppliers who were ‘trying it on' or seeking to pressure-sell us (neither are wise strategies when dealing with me!) or else who could not offer a fully integrated solution. The final bit of advice is to do your own homework, keep pushing and check all the way. Your council's planning department (like mine) might be ill-informed and habitually obstructive, and we also found that the endorsement of major energy suppliers was no assurance of quality, experience or business ethics.

I'll write again over coming months to let you know how our next ‘stepping stones' go on the pathway towards lightening the overall burden of our energy use.

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