Solar energy, a review

As I was walking along the road the other day I was looking up at the roofs of houses and wondering why so few have solar panels. They seem to be in fashion, more and more companies are sitting on stools waiting for you to exist some big store and sell you the idea of a free visit, to assess how much money you can save, and here in the UK there are probably quite a lot of people who could save money quite quickly, with Feed In Tariffs and lovely things like that.

I don’t want to do a who does what best kind of review, things are changing so rapidly that you need to keep in touch with what is going on on a week by week basis. What I want to do is list the kind of things that I think you should be thinking about, and then maybe one or two people who do the job can answer or reply. Gently of course.

Point by point, a review:

1. Will you save money? Well, you need to count the cost of the money itself, if you are paying interest on the money (and not paying off the mortgage is also, in a way, paying interest) then that cost needs to be included. People are generally terrible at making these kinds of calculations. I read somewhere that if people have 3 small loans at low interest and one at higher interest they will pay off the 3 small loans first to ‘get them out of the way’, which is not sensible of course. but I know how they feel. If you are paying high interest on a loan for buying your car, that is also what you could do instead of buying solar panels (though better still, sell the car!).

While interest rates are low in the UK then using savings is not losing you money, but if interest rates get hiked up this will change.

But as long as the money is not costing you too much, then solar panels will probably have good payback, if you get Feed in Tariff and you have good panels in the right place.

2. Is your roof right? The roof is the chosen place because ¬†stealing energy from the sun is not OK if it would otherwise help grow green things in the garden, or your neighbour’s garden. But a lot of roofs can not be so good.

They obviously should face the sun, which means south facing is best and anything less not so good.

They need to be at a good angle, too steep is no good and too shallow or flat is no good.

There is no absolute about the angle because it depends where north or south you live. The further south you are the shallower the angle should be, by shallow I mean lying flat.

It depends on the trees in the way. It is funny how people plants trees as if they are never going to grow too tall. It seems a shame to cut down a tree (and you probably need permission) but if you were to make furniture from the wood at least you have stored the carbon it captured.

3. Is your lifestyle right? You might want to do 2 calculations, one in which all the electricity the panels produces is sold back to the Grid (Feed in) and one in which all the electricity is used by you. Take careful note that when you buy electricity you pay most for the first few units and less for the rest. If the panels mean you only buy a small number of expensive units this should be considered in the equation. You are only saving the cheap units not the expensive ones.

If your lifestyle is such that you use very little electricity then you may be saving the expensive ones, so that would be good. but then you would be selling the rest back to the Grid, which may be not so good.

Be honest about your lifestyle. A lifestyle switch could save you more than a solar panel or two. But of course you could plan to do both.

4. Are the panels good?

Like buying a car, buying the best panels takes some research. When you do that research you maybe want to check how people’s comments are relevant to you. Someone from Iceland or the Sahara is obviously not relevant for the UK, but what about Scotland, or simply inland or on the coast? And what about lifestyle, someone working from home with 5 kids is not the same as a working couple who go out every night.

Some panels will work better than other in lower light conditions, others will work better with strong sunlight. If your house is by the harbour and most mornings it is 11 a.m. before you see the sun, but then gets really hot, that is not the same as someone who lives up the hill inland who gets clear morning skies and later the sky clouds over.

There are some sophisticated things to consider, like tracking (but only if you have a big garden) and comparison with other kinds of green energy like heat pumps, ground heat, and maybe even wind (but not for most). But you are probably thinking this is all too much to consider anyway?

So what would I do? well, I would actually knock on the door of people who have solar panels, especially if you saw them installed about a year ago, and ask to see their electricity bills and returns from the panels. They can also tell you if the installers were good as well.

Finally, I don’t see any panels for the vertical walls on houses, the walls of East/West houses which have a south facing vertical wall. If anyone knows they are out there, please let us all know. It would add a lot of houses to the solar panel enthusiasts. OK, I know you can fit them to a pole to make the right angle, but why can’t they be segmented like a curtain blind? Get the idea?

When we finally get to be off the Grid altogether, here is a possible solution to the energy storage problem.

The sooner we lose the Grid the better.

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