Solar Evening – A Summary

Energy & Housing, News

A Q&A discussion with a ‘panel of experts’ exploring latest options for solar panels & battery storage, along with the costs and benefits and practicalities at Steyning Athletic Club – 25 Sept 2023

Introduction (Geoff Barnard)

This is the second time Greening Steyning has run a solar evening like this – the first was in 2011.   That was at the beginning of the solar revolution when photovoltaic (PV) panels were a relatively new technology, and systems cost £10,000 or more to install.  Government had recently introduced the ‘Feed in Tariff’ (FIT) scheme to kick-start the uptake of PV panels.  They offered an incentive payment of 41.3p for every unit of electricity generated, index linked for 25 years.  

It was almost too good to be true, and over the next two years over 120 people in the BN44 area had panels fitted. They will have paid off the capital cost by now.  And with the FIT having increased to 68.3p per kWh they’ll be receiving a payment of up to £2000 a year from their energy supplier.  No wonder they’re smiling!

A lot has changed since then.  The Feed in Tariff scheme tailed off and has ended.  Now you get paid a more modest ‘Smart Export Guarantee’ (SEG) payment for every unit you feed back to the grid.  This varies between 2p and 15p per kWh depending on your electricity supplier so it’s worth shopping around (check this link to see how they compare).

But prices of PV panels have also dropped steadily. The technology has also improved.  Panels are much more efficient these days and there are lots of smart options that – for example, solar optimisers that reduces the impact of shading.  You to also use spare solar energy to heat your hot water, via a solar diverter, and trickle charge your electric car when the suns shining.  

Plus there have been big advances in battery technology.  So you can now get affordable batteries that allow you to store excess energy during the day to make use of in the evening – all controlled from an easy-to-use phone app.

Why go solar?  

The environmental case for going solar has been strong from the beginning.  Clean, silent, and long lasting, a 4kW PV system will typically save over 800kg of CO2 emissions each year – about the same as driving a car 2000 miles.  It’s a great feeling

But with the recent hikes in electricity prices the economics have taken a significant turn for the better.  Every unit of power you save is worth two to three times what it was a few years ago.  With all these factors added in, the payback time for a new solar installation has shrunk considerably and is now back to well under 10 years for many systems.

So while the best time to go solar might have been 12 years ago, the second best time might be now!

Introductions from panel members

Michael Yeoman – Savent Solar

  • Savent Solar is a local installer based in Storrington.  He’s been in the solar business for over a decade and has survived the boom and bust that followed the removal of the feed in tariff.  Business has picked up again recently so there is now a lot of interest.  As well as installing new systems, they do repairs and upgrades on earlier equipment.

Stephie Shorey – Home owner

  • Had 12 panels fitted in 2021 on straightforward roof, with a southeast aspect.  Performance has been brilliant.  Battery charged up during the day from solar, runs the house, and will also charge their plug-in hybrid car.  Installation done via the Solar Together scheme, promoted by HDC/WSCC.   Get SEG payment of 15p per kilowatt on energy sent to grid (from Octopus).  Dishwasher and washing machine run from battery at night, or on a sunny day from the solar panels.  Reckoning on a 6 – 7 years payback.  Before they fitted panels they got 350mm of loft insulation and clad outside of house.  System cost £6,500 in total.

Roger Brown – Home owner

  • Initially had 7 panels fitted in 2021, through Solar Together scheme.  Couldn’t use all the electricity at the time they generated it – 50% was going back to grid.  Have since added 10 more panels on flat roofs, 4 more facing south and 6 facing west.  This has increased the output to 6.2 kW.  Have also installed a 6.5kWh battery in garage, and are thinking of adding another battery as it runs out in the evening.  Needed to upgrade electrics in house before installation.  Converted gas Aga to electric.  Now 80% self-sufficient with electricity. 

Malcolm Duke – Greening Steyning Home Energy Helpdesk

  • The Helpdesk has been running since January 2022 and offers suggestions and support on how to reduce energy use at home.  Run by volunteers who are there talk and listen and give ideas on topics ranging from draft proofing to insulation, heat pumps, and solar.  The Helpdesk can also advise on comparative quotes, and has a list of local installers.  (See details below for Helpdesk timing)

Dave Tester – Home Energy Helpdesk

  • Often speaks to Helpdesk customers about the pros and cons of solar.  Advises that the financial benefits of solar depend on your lifestyle and whether you are out of the house or home all day.  If you are home most of the time you can adjust your usage to use more of the solar power during the day – e.g. doing you laundry when it’s sunny, cooking roast dinner when the suns out, and making sandwiches on cloudy days. The financial benefits are less if you are out all day, but you can use timers (e.g. for dishwashers) to make the most of solar power when it’s available.   Batteries will also help get round this problem.  Can charge an EV car with combination of battery and off peak rates. 

Highlights from the Q&A Discussion

What should I do before I fit panels?It is important to make sure the roof is sound and can take the weight of panels.  A good installer will check this for you. It also makes sense to carry out basic energy saving steps like blocking draughts, topping up you loft insulation and making sure you have cavity wall insulation, before spending money on solar.
Typical costs and returnsBasic 10 panel PV system generating 4.5kW costs around £5,500 these days (in 2011 it would have cost £15k.) Prices rose during COVID due to supply chain problems but have dropped in last 6 months. Like with buy a car, prices vary between standard and top end equipment. Costs also vary depending on roof, ease of install, etc.  Typical payback period: 6 – 12 years  10kWh batteries cost around £5 – 6.5k.  
What if I don’t have a suitable roof?If you have a garden you can think about putting panels on your shed, or having ground mounted panels.
What’s the life expectancy of PV panels?Solar panels generally have a 25 years performance warranty.  Performance drops very gradually over time (0.5% every year according to Energy Saving Trust) There are variations in panel quality and efficiency.   Need to clean every 3 – 5 years. Inverters generally need to be replaced every 10 years.
Do I need bird protection?Generally, Yes – birds love nesting under PV panels, and birds’ nests attract rodents. Less of an issue on first floor roofs or where panels are easily accessible and can be cleared.
Battery optionsThese days, the battery can be most important part of the installation.  The technology is newer and is still evolving. Batteries generally come with a 10 year warranty, with performance tailing off gradually after that. Batteries can also be charged up overnight from the grid when electricity is cheap and used during the day when it’s more expensive.  Battery performance and lifespan drops if they get too hot or cold, so it’s best to have them indoors not outside. Most battery systems don’t work if you have a power cut – it costs considerably more to build in that ability.
Are there tax implications?Income from SEG payments is tax free for domestic systems.
Getting 3 quotes vs personal recommendationsIt’s generally regarded as good practice to get 3 quotes from different installers before going ahead with any significant work.  This can be hard to do in practice and it’s not always easy to assess and compare quotes if you are not reasonably expert yourself. The alternative approach is rely on a personal recommendation, and that’s what several on the panel had done. The Home Energy Helpdesk can offer suggestions on local installers and are happy to discuss quotes you may have received.
What about the Solar Together scheme?This is a group buying scheme backed by West Sussex County Council and Horsham District Council.  They group together multiple applications from homeowners and get installers to bid for the package.   The winning installer then contacts the homeowner to carry out a detailed survey, and finalise a quote. The scheme takes the hassle out of the process for home owners and offer some assurance of quality control and comeback if things go wrong.  Prices are mid range, rather than super cheap, and the kit is also mid range in quality. The first round in Sussex was awarded to a company based in the Midlands, which has created some problems with follow-up & support. Subsequent rounds have gone to companies based in the South of England. The third round of the scheme closed in May 2023.  It has not been confirmed whether this scheme will be continued by WSCC/HDC.
How do you spot cowboys?If the quote is too good to be true, it probably is. Overt pressure tactics getting you to sign on the dotted line. Check that installers are MCS certified. Check what the arrangements are if you need follow up support.  This is more likely to be a problem for installers based a long way away. Check that there is a UK support centre for any key components (like inverters), in case you need technical backup later.
Do I need planning permission?“Solar panels do not usually need planning permission on a roof of a dwelling house, including in a conservation area” (according to HDC).   It is harder for listed buildings, but you might be able to put panels in the roof valleys or on side buildings or annexes.  For ground-mounted systems you need permission for more than 5 panels. If you are uncertain, an informal chat with the Planning Dept is a good way to start. Further details can be found here.

Next Helpdesk dates

Everyone is welcome to draw on the Home Energy Helpdesk team for advice on their individual situations.  The next dates are: 

Repair Café at Beeding Village Hall (2-4pm)

Sat 7 Oct

Sat 11 Nov

Beeding Hub (10-12am)

Weds 27 Sept

Weds 29 Nov

You can turn up on the day, or book at spot ahead at: www.greeningsteyning.org/helpdesk