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Getting the most out of solar electricity

With almost 800,000 installations across the UK to date, it’s clear that there’s something attractive about solar PV

By using the sun’s energy to generate electricity, you can save money on your electricity bills, earn money from the electricity you generate and that you sell back to the grid, as well as doing your bit to cut your home’s carbon footprint. 

The right roof

First and foremost, your roof’s got to be right for the job. South-facing roofs are the best as they get the most direct sunlight throughout the day. East and West can also bring good results, but if your roof faces North, it’s not the technology for you. Whatever way your roof faces, it has to be free from obstructions – this might mean shading from trees or nearby buildings. 

Solar PV on a roof

Eco or economic motivations?

The reasons why people install solar PV vary, but the key divide is probably between ‘green’ rationale, and financial. 

If your prime focus is mainly on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with your electricity supply, then solar will do that. A home solar installation can save up to two tonnes of carbon a year – while offering some useful financial benefits to boot. 

Get your calculator out...

But if looking at solar from purely an economic point of view, there are some key considerations to factor in. A solar panel installation tends to cost upwards of £5,000, so it’s important to do the maths first. 

The average domestic solar PV system, installed in a home with average electricity usage behaviour, is likely to save you around £70 a year on electricity bills. 

The Feed-Tariff (FiT) is a government incentive to encourage people to generate their own energy. It pays for every unit of electricity generated, plus a smaller amount for each unit exported back to the grid. You can make around £200 to £250 a year from this, depending on where you are in the country. 

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Making the finances stack up

With lower rates of FiTs than there used to be, it’s unlikely to be this incentive alone that pushes you to solar investment. But there are a number of contexts where you can get more bang for your buck out of installing solar panels

The more you’re able to use the electricity they generate during the daytime, the better value solar is going to be. So, lifestyle matters.

If you’re retired, or planning retirement, and you’re likely to be around the house a lot, you’re likely to use more solar electricity, and make bigger bill savings. If you work at home or are a stay-at-home parent, a similar logic applies. 

By using a higher than average proportion of your electricity in the day time, when the panels are generating electricity, you could save more off your electricity bills. For example, if you’re able to use 25% of the total electricity that the panels generate, you could save £135 from your annual bill.

Got the builders in already? Consider solar

Installing solar when you’re already taking on other work can also improve the return on investment. 

If you’re undertaking a loft conversion or changing your roof, scaffolding will already be up – an expensive part of installation that you’re likely to be able to deduct from the fee charged by solar installers. Skylights can also be placed in a way to ensure the most panels can be fitted. More panels, more electricity, more benefit. 

If work inside the house is being undertaken too, as part of an extensive renovation, then it might be the time to fit low energy lighting and appliances, to make the most out of the free electricity. 

Beyond the financial implications of adding solar to an existing job, there are clear convenience benefits. Disruption is minimised, and it may well be easier to run electrical wiring and connect to the grid while other work is going on. 

Domestic solar panels

The future of solar power

Global demand means that the cost of solar panels has fallen over the last few years, and is likely to keep dropping in the future. 

The technology itself will also evolve over time. The efficiency of solar cells is improving, and ideas that are currently in the lab may be on roofs within the next few years. 

For those who aren’t so keen on the aesthetics of solar panels, solar tiles could be an option. At the moment, this is a significantly more expensive and less efficient way of doing things, but with tech companies like Tesla jumping into the market, big improvements are expected. There may even be a future role for entirely transparent solar windows.

For now, solar panels can still make sense for many homes. It’s all a matter of having a clear idea of what your motivation for investing is; and once established, finding practical ways to get the best out of an installation. 

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below, or tweet us @EnergySvgTrust.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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