Sunlight is a plentiful source of energy, but is it really worth our while trying to tame it? Joe Clancy looks at how families have used solar power to save money.
Four months before his daughter Rachel was born, Paul had solar panels erected on the roof of his four-bedroom, two-bathroom, detached house. Prior to the happy event, project manager Paul’s environmental good works had been limited to cycling and recycling.
But while looking forward to becoming a dad, he realised he wanted to do more to safeguard his child’s future in a sustainable world. “When you think about having kids, you think about what kind of world you are bringing them into and what you are leaving behind for them,” he said.
“It is not just about what happens when the oil and gas runs out. It is more about the impact of global warming and the legacy I leave to the next generation. I want to bring my children up to be aware of green issues, and having solar panels on the roof makes a strong statement about the environment.”
He spent £2,100 installing the solar water heating system, which saved him £400 off his gas bill in its first year. His family is provided with free hot water throughout the summer months, and even on a cloudy winter’s day it will provide more than half of their hot water needs – which is a welcome bonus when piles of nappies and baby clothes add extra loads to the family’s weekly wash.
Rising energy prices
With energy prices rocketing – gas prices have risen 72% in the last three years and some forecasters predict they will double again in the next two years – his decision is reaping benefits quicker than he expected.
He originally forecast a five- year pay-back on his expenditure in terms of reduced energy bills, but he now believes he could be making a profit on the system after just four years. Even at current prices he estimates he will make a minimum of £6,000 profit over the 20-year life span of the system.
“I am so impressed by how much heat I get from the panels,” he said. “My heating hasn’t been on since the beginning of May. All my hot water has been off the roof. It is so good to know that I have plenty of hot water without it costing me a penny, and without adding any carbon dioxide to the environment.”
He also believes there will be a third financial return in addition to the environmental impact and the reduction in his gas bills: the amount it will add to the value of his house. Some solar panel installation companies claim that in certain areas, eco houses are fetching a 10% premium in their neighbourhoods.
Research carried out by the Energy Saving Trust (EST) reveals that many property buyers are prepared to pay up to £10,000 more for an environmentally friendly home, and this figure could increase.
“All my neighbours think the solar panels are great. One chap down the road is so impressed he is going to have them fitted. “It has certainly raised my profile in the neighbourhood. I have lost count of the number of strangers walking by who wanted to talk to me about it.”
Paul is employed by Worcester Bosch, a heating company which installed the system at his 10-year-old house, and so he was entitled to a “small discount” on the Greenskies system he installed, which took just two days. Paul and his wife Veronica are now considering adding photovoltaic solar panels to the roof to give them free electricity as well as free hot water.
The next step
Photovoltaic (PV) systems use cells to convert solar radiation into electricity, which can be used to run appliances in the home, or alternatively can be sold to the National Grid. As well as bolt-on panels, PV systems now come in a variety of shapes and colours and can even come in the form of grey ‘solar tiles’ that look like roof tiles or slates, and can be integrated into the design of the roof.
This is particularly useful if you live in a conservation area where planning permission could be difficult to come by or for people in period properties concerned about their home’s appearance. But these types of systems can be expensive.
When Simon Roberts’s roof needed repairing in 2001, he took the opportunity to have solar panels installed on the roof of his four-storey terraced house in Stockwell, south London. He had first experienced PV solar technology while doing Voluntary Service Overseas work in a remote village in Kenya in the 1980s which relied on solar energy.
His panels cost £6,500, but he was able to get a £3,000 grant from the Energy Saving Trust, which can pay for up to half the cost of a solar PV system to a maximum of £15,000.
The system produces electricity which he sells to the National Grid for 4p a unit, making him around £50 per year. It provides the equivalent of around a fifth of his electricity usage.
He admits that current costs of PV solar systems do not make them cost effective in a financial sense. “But the more people who have them installed, the more the price will come down. People are willing to spend extraordinary amounts of money on new kitchens, but they can get a decent solar roof for less than half the price,” he said. “For me it is part of trying to be responsible for the earth.”
The EST states that a typical domestic PV system can save around 650kg of CO2 emissions per home – enough to fill three hot air balloons – and save a householder £120 per year. If all houses in the UK installed solar PV panels, enough electricity would be generated each year to meet 26% of domestic energy demand.
The amount of electricity consumed by household domestic appliances in the UK doubled between 1972 and 2002, and is anticipated to rise by a further 12% in the next four years. The potential impact this will have on our environment is huge. The question may not be can we afford to have solar panelling installed, but can we afford not to.
Log onto greenergy.org.uk for manufacturers and installers of solar energy products
Want to harness the power… …but don’t know where to start? Your first stop should be the Low Carbon Building Programme grants website: www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/home
Which way does your roof face? South-facing is ideal, but south-east or south-west can also produce a substantial amount of power.
Is the roof in shadow? The system will need direct daylight.
Is there a minimum of 3m2 roof space available? Are there obstructions on the roof, such as Velux windows or chimneys? Are you planning to replace the roof anytime soon? If so you should opt for an integrated system and co-ordinate the replacement and the installation.
What is the slope of the roof? A pitch of 30o is ideal. If the roof is flat there will be an extra cost
Do you live in a conservation area? Or does the south-facing roof face onto the road? You may need planning permission.
Is the property taller than three storeys? Remember scaffolding costs.
Do you have a combination boiler? Your installer will need to check whether it is compatible.
Do you have the space for a larger hot water storage tank? The twin coil tank may be larger than the existing one.
Do you already have loft or cavity wall insulation, heating controls, or energy efficiency light bulbs? You may be eligible for a £400 solar thermal or £3,000/kWp PV grant
Creative Environmental Networks: www.cen.org.uk
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in February 2007