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What you need to know about solar panels

Joy Persaud / 15 September 2016

Get the lowdown on solar panels with answers to these frequently asked questions on installing and operating solar panels at home.

Solar panels
A large south-facing roof is ideal for solar panels

Why use solar panels?

As energy prices rise, the use of solar power in the UK is escalating. Alongside cost savings, the drive to use cleaner, renewable energy is a factor for those who wish to live in an environmentally friendly, sustainable way.

What is clean energy?

Clean energy has no negative impact on the environment, as it does not generate harmful by-products and doesn’t emit pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels. Clean energy doesn’t contribute to noise pollution issues either, and is constantly naturally replenished.

Find out how to make your home more eco-friendly

What do solar panels do?

Photovoltaic (PV) panels, made of layers of a semi-conducting material (usually silicon), convert sunlight into electricity that can be used to power lights and household appliances.

Are all homes suitable for solar panels?

Your roof needs to be predominantly south facing for the panels to work efficiently. Also, the roof will need to have a big enough uninterrupted space as well as being out of the shade of other properties or trees between 10am and 4pm. Your home’s Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) should ideally be grade D or above. EPCs, which are valid for 10 years, determine how much you’ll earn for your electricity output. You can find out your EPC rating here.

Is planning permission necessary?

Most homes won’t need planning permission, but if you’re in a conservation area or your home has a flat roof, you may need to obtain consent from your local authority’s building control team.

Chartered Surveyor John Conlin advises a reader on solar panels and planning permission


Do I need planning permission before installing solar panels on part of my roof?

I have asked the owner if he would shield the lights but he refuses, claiming that he has a right to do whatever is necessary for security.

John’s reply:

The only circumstances where planning permission is required are: If the property is listed or in a conservation area or a world heritage site or if they will be more than 200mm proud of the general roof surface or project above the roof apex.

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What’s the installation cost?

A 4kWp solar PV system, including installation, should cost between £6,000 and £9,000. Buy from a company accredited by the independent Microgeneration Certification Scheme. Shop around and compare quotes to ensure you’re getting a good deal. The outlay will be recouped over time.

Are solar panels tricky to maintain?

Solar panels should last 20-30 years with very little maintenance needed. The warranty should cover the panels for 20 years – to match the duration of the feed-in tariff. If they are damaged, your house insurance may cover the repair cost – be sure to check before you begin installation.

How much could I earn?

The ‘feed-in tariff’ is a payment from the government for all the renewable energy a household generates, regardless of how much is used (in England, Wales and Scotland). The tariff will depend on the EPC grade of the house, with grades A-D earning more (currently around 4.39per/kWh ) and homes that score below D earning considerably less (about 0.87per/kWh). The tariff is paid quarterly, tax-free, via your usual electricity supplier. An average home should earn £150 a year under the feed-in tariff, according to the Energy Saving Trust. The sum is indexed-linked and rises with inflation. Find out more about the different tariffs.

What about excess energy?

You will be paid for energy that you don’t use under the export tariff. This energy, estimated to be 50 per cent of what you generate, is sent back to the national grid. As there’s no accurate way of measuring how much energy you return to the grid, you may be gaining financially if you use more than 50 per cent but losing out if you use less. A typical house can earn £85 a year through the export tariff. With reduced electricity bills, plus the feed-in and export tariffs, most homes should make several hundred pounds a year.

What happens when it’s not sunny?

Solar panels work in daylight – even when the sky seems to offer nothing but clouds. At night and when the sky is extremely overcast, your electricity will come from the grid. Solar panels cannot store energy.

Can energy be saved?

Yes. Panels can’t store energy, but you can buy solar energy batteries that link up to them. These store energy when the sun is out and are discharged once there’s insufficient light for your panels to generate electricity, cutting your consumption from the grid. Some batteries are also designed to provide energy if there is a power cut.

When should I use my solar energy?

Stagger the use of household appliances so that you use up as much solar energy as possible. If they are timed to come on sequentially, you’ll use less electricity from the grid.

Am I tied in to one energy supplier?

No. You are free to switch to the best deals available.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.