Make sense of solar energy

A rooftop sola panel

A rooftop sola panel

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You may think that solar panels are a big expense and so not for you, but if you’re planning to stay in your home for a long time, installing them can make sense financially as well as being beneficial to the environment.

There are two types of solar panel – ones that generate electricity (solar photovoltaics or PV), which are most popular, and ones that heat your home’s water (solar thermal).

With both, you’ll cut your utility bills and CO2 emissions, but the benefits don’t end there.

Solar PV panels can also earn you money, thanks to the Government’s Feed-In Tariffs scheme, which pays you for the electricity you generate and use and also for any surplus you supply to the National Grid.

This could give you savings and income of around £670 a year, according to the Energy Saving Trust. Its website (www.energysavingtrust.org.uk) features a Solar Energy Calculator, where you can work out how you could benefit from the scheme.

An average 3kWp (kilowatts peak) PV system, which will produce enough electricity for around 75 per cent of a typical household’s needs, costs in the region of £10,000.

Solar thermal panels cost much less, at around £3,000 to £5,000 for a typical system. They’ll provide around 33 per cent of the hot water you need at home (depending on the size of your household), but won’t save you much money – between £55 and £80 a year, according to an Energy Saving Trust field trial.

You may be able to get a grant to help with the cost of the installation, or other financial assistance – check the Energy Saving Trust website for the latest schemes.

As well as the thermal panels, you’ll need a boiler or immersion heater to give you additional hot water and sometimes to make the water heated by the panels hotter, especially in winter. You may also have to change your boiler and hot-water cylinder to a compatible one.

If putting the panels on a pitched roof isn’t an option, you may be able to mount them on a frame on the ground, a wall or a flat roof instead.

As with all solar panels, how well they’ll work will depend on how much sun they get – the sunnier the position, the better, although they can still work on cloudy days. Solar panels are heavy, so ground or wall-mounted ones could be a good option if the roof can’t take the weight.

If your home’s leasehold, you may need permission from the freeholder to install solar panels. Restrictions may also apply if you live on ‘designated land’, such as a conservation area, and if the building’s listed, so ask your local council about what you can and can’t do.

Where planning restrictions apply, solar roof tiles or slates may be acceptable to the planners. These are more expensive than panels, though.

Standard solar panels are readily available – try the B&Q website (www.diy.com), where panels start at £2,198 for two. Alternatively, go to http://local.which.co.uk or www.microgenerationcertification.org to find solar panel installers.

As ever, get as many quotations as possible to find the best deal.