Free Electricity – Is It Worth It?

It was only a handful of years ago that people shuddered at the mere mention of Solar Panels. “How much do they cost?” was a common question, along with “do they really work?” or “how long before I get my money back?” But now it is 2015, renewable energy is in fashion (for good reason – you like your planet, don’t you?) and you will be hard pushed to walk down a road without seeing at least one house that has got them, or is in the process of getting them installed.

We have many clients interested with the prospect of generating free electricity and have installed them on various residential and commercial buildings. The States of Guernsey Health and Social Services Department have recently taken the bold step to install the largest commercial PV Installation on the Island and they are leading the way for other departments to follow suit.

PV Panels at Fouguere Ward, Princess Elizabeth Hospital – Guernsey

Just to be clear, ‘Photovoltaics or PV panels’ – generate electricity you can use in the property and surplus electricity is directed back into the ‘grid’ and purchased by Guernsey Electricity Limited. They pay you for generating electricity so there is a payback period on each installation.

PV Panels work best during direct sunlight so they don’t really operate at night and are less efficient in shaded areas. You should even try to keep them clean because a little bit of mess left from a passing bird can reduce the effectiveness of the panel.

So we have a current technology that generates electricity for free, any electricity that we don’t use is purchased by Guernsey Electricity. Therefore we have a situation where our property is earning us money!

Don’t get too excited by that prospect, the payback tariff is not that exciting. Also, as we generate electricity during the day but use most of the electricity during the night, the system does not seem in tandem with the way we live in our homes.

Electricity is a powerful and potentially dangerous resource, particularly in ‘Direct Current’ DC which is how the panels create electricity. Invertors convert the DC into AC (Alternating Current) which can then be used in our homes but generally, storing electricity was thought of as being too dangerous. That is until recently as developers are investing in the future of the PV system by creating a safe and simple system that can store the electricity and it can be used when needed or sent back down the grid and purchased by Guernsey Electricity.

So this system appears to be a technology we should all consider. The question we really all want to know is ‘how much will it cost and when will I get my money back?’.

The cost side is dependent on many factors. What size is the system? How high is the building and is access restricted? There are many local companies installing PV Panels and in terms of cost, you will need competitive quotes to determine the cost side of each installation.

“When will I get my money back?” is another particularly tricky question that depends on too many factors to answer in detail. Generally, the quotations we have seen report a 7<10 year payback period although it does depend on having good weather or how efficient the system remains as they do fade over time. Ideally, you want a system installed with a guarantee for a minimum of 20 years, that way you will ensure the payback is worthwhile.

In our view, the current systems are worthwhile and a good investment into your property, however when we are able to store electricity, they should be much more economical and in tandem with our lives.

There is really very little benefit being paid by Guernsey Electricity to generate electricity for them, it simply is not worthwhile installing the system for a payment return. It is however much more beneficial to install a PV System and use the electricity you generate. Therefore, businesses operating out of buildings that use electrical power and lights during the day will use the electricity as it is generated.

For certain, each installation we have been involved with has been worthwhile. Clients can see an instant reduction in their electrical bills and also monitor the installation from anywhere in the world to ensure it is still operating. There is very little maintenance with a PV System, just keep it clean.

In a world where the average three bedroom property has two iPads, two iPhones and other bundles of technology that need to be charged, we are relying more heavily on electrical power. It would be a shame to ignore this modern technology simply due a belief that it is not yet worthwhile, because it is.

How Do They Work?

In simply terms, they need daylight, they ideally need to be on a southern roof slope and without shading from trees or other buildings.

The biggest misconception behind PV panels is that they are complicated. Perhaps what goes on inside them is, but all you and I need to know is that they work.

The PV cells on the panels are made from a silicone structure which, when exposed to daylight, generates Direct Current (DC). This DC is turned into Alternating Current (AC) via an Inverter in the home which in turn powers your household appliances and lighting. Any power that you do not use can be exported back to the Guernsey Electricity network, for which you will receive payment.

It goes without saying that the stronger the sunshine, the more electricity is produced, but remember that these panels work on daylight, not sunlight. So even when the clouds are looming (as is so often the case) you can still generate electricity.

What Are The Benefits…really?

Aside from reducing your carbon footprint and doing your bit to save your planet, you mean? Quite a few.

Reduce your electricity bills. Ah, sunlight. We wait months to get a mere glimpse of it, and spend the months after that complaining about the power of it. But, it is free. Not much in this world is anymore, but you (and your home) can soak up all the sunshine available and not pay a penny for it. You will have to pay out for your initial installation and the cost of the equipment (the PV panels and Inverter) but after that your monthly electricity bills will reduce.

Save, save save! Over time, your savings will become larger and more noticeable. When we consider the fact that the equipment that comes with a Solar Panel installation is cheaper now than it was a few years ago, and the cost of electricity is, and will continue to, increase, it is not difficult to see how a return-on-investment can happen fairly quickly.

Smaller footprints. Eco is in, it’s a fact. And if you are not doing your bit for our environment by now then shame on you. Just one of the ways you can fix this is by installing Solar Panels; solar electricity is green renewable energy and doesn’t release anything harmful into the environment and pollute our planet. So you can sleep easy knowing that, whilst you won’t save the planet single handed, the next time someone asks you “what do you do for the earth?” you can answer with a smile on your face.

Do I need Planning Permission?

The good news here, probably not. Installation of a solar panel is exempt from planning in Guernsey, but there are exceptions to that;

Where mounted on a pitched roof, the panel must be installed parallel to the plane of the roof slope and cannot project more than 30cm from that plane

The panel cannot be installed on any roof slope facing a highway (road)

Where mounted on the ground, the panel cannot be located forward of any elevation of the house that faces a highway (road) and should not exceed two metres in height

The combination of panels does not exceed 10 m2

No panel is located more than 30m from the house

If the solar panels you want to install break any of the above ‘rules,’ then you will need to apply for planning permission and pay a fee. At the time of writing, the fee for installation of a solar panel falls under Category 5A at £55.00. You can get further information and download the relevant application forms on the States of Guernsey website (http://www.gov.gg/planning).

Remember that if your building is listed, you will need to apply for planning permission regardless.

Building Control do not need to be notified of any installation, provided that no structural alterations are required to the roof structure, and that the connection into the buildings heating system is carried out by a certified installer.

How do I go about getting them installed?

You will need to call in a professional installer, unless you are qualified in the field yourself. There are several companies on the island offering advice and most offer free, no obligation site surveys to ensure that it is worth investing in Solar Panels. Once it is confirmed that your house will benefit from the PV Panels, most systems are usually up and running in two to three days.

Your professional will be able to go into more depth, but the below generally apply in making sure your home is suitable for Solar PV Panels;

For the optimum performance, your roof should face South at a pitched angle of around 30o. This increases the amount of sunlight captured, in turn ensuring you have plenty of power to run your household appliances and lighting

That’s not saying that it wouldn’t be worthwhile having them installed if your roof faces south of due East or West at a pitched angled of 45o. It just means the system performance will be slightly reduced. Your panels will be still be producing enough electricity to run your day to day activities. We wouldn’t, however, recommend having them installed on a North facing roof – you will likely find yourself out of pocket.

Solar Panels have been designed to tolerate some shading, but if your roof goes into shade between 10am – 4pm (when daylight is optimum) you may want to have a rethink if they are right for your home. Trees, in particular, are a big issue, but study your site and see if any other objects, such as chimneys or television aerials, shade the panels at the important times of day. Remember that all the panel modules are connected, so even if one module is shaded by a tree for the most part of the day, the performance of the entire system will be affected.

How difficult are they to maintain?

Everyone is on a quest to make life a little easier for themselves, and the thought of maintaining Solar Panels may give you a headache. You will be pleasantly surprised, then, to learn that they require very little maintenance. Great news! Maintenance comes down mainly to the site of your home itself, making sure that trees and other objects do not begin to overshadow the panels. Some debris may accumulate around the panels (this is more often the case with ground mounted, rather than roof mounted, systems) but just keep them relatively clean and you shouldn’t encounter any problems. Your professional installer will leave you with details of any maintenance checks that should be carried out every now and again.

You will also be pleased to know that most Solar PV Panel systems will last around a minimum of 25 years once installed. Remember that is minimum – kept in good shape and routinely maintained, they should last a lot longer.

Money is, and always will be, the big seller here. And as we have mentioned above, you won’t see it straight away but you will soon start to notice a reduction in your bills. This reduction can be more noticeable, however, if you take a few steps to making your system work.

Use energy efficient lighting systems and high rated appliances. It may also be worth checking the level of insulation and air tightness of your home and investing in products to help your home run more efficiently.

Think about when you use the bulk of your electricity. Whilst your PV system is hard at work during the day, set your household appliances to run, making use of all that generated energy. Most modern appliances now come with time delays, so you can get your washing machine to turn on whilst you are out during the day.

Install an Energy Management System, designed so you can choose how to use excess electricity. Your professional installer will be able to advise.

The information in this Coffee Break article is intended for guidance only. The authors cannot accept any liability for any loss or damage which may result from the use of this article.

Produced By;

Gary Naftel BSc(Hons) MCIArb MRICS
Chartered Surveyor

The information in this Coffee Break article is intended for guidance only. The authors cannot accept any liability for any loss or damage which may result from the use of this article.