Sunday, 19 January 2014

The sunny stuff

I didn't show the full extent of my roof in the last post because of this....

Just over a month ago we had solar photo-voltaic panels (PV) fitted to our roof. PV panels convert energy from sunlight into electricity. They aren't our PV panels technically, we have just rented the air above our roof to A Shade Greener, who have covered it with PV panels. This may sound bizarre, but it is all to do with a government scheme in the UK called Feed-In-Tariffs or FiTs.

A few years ago PV panels cost so much to install for a dwelling, that the energy saved wouldn't even cover the cost of installing them in their 30 year lifetime. There were 3 reasons for this. Firstly it was a fairly new technology and did not benefit from the economies of scale that mass production does. Secondly the UK is pretty cloudy, so you wouldn't produce as much electricity from them here, as you would if they were somewhere sunny like Spain. Thirdly the cost of electricity in the UK was relatively cheap, so the small amount of electricity that you gained from the PV wasn't worth a lot.

The government decided to follow Germany's lead and incentivise renewables, by offering a generous payment for every unit of electricity generated. By encouraging a bigger take up of PV systems, the economies of scale would kick in and the price of installing PV would drop. This has been pretty successful as prices for a domestic PV system have dropped from around £11,500 to around £4,500.

The FiT amount you receive when you install the PV system is guaranteed to be paid for the next 25 years at that rate. When the scheme started this rate was 43.3 pence per kWh, but has since been reduced (in line with the reduced installation costs) and is currently 14.9 pence per kWh. Investing in PV panels can give a 7% return with the FiTs, far better than the banks are offering at present. So the FiTs mean that installing PV makes good financial sense, if you have an unshaded, southerly facing roof.

I have been looking at ways to reduce my energy consumption, but didn't have money to invest. The PV panels have been installed at no cost to me. The company will maintain them and insure them for 25 years, but they will also receive all the FiT payments. However we do get to use all the electricity the PV produces at no cost, thereby reducing the grid electricity we consume. No upfront cost, no risk and free energy was enough to persuade me :-)

We were very pleased with the whole installation process. There was absolutely no sales pressure or salesmen sent round, they went through the wording of the contract with us line by line, it was well organised so that the scaffolding was up for less than a week, the installation was only 2 or 3 hours and within 2 days we had an online account showing the energy that had been generated. I have copied the table from A Shade Greener's website below.

So far 203 kWh have been produced (about £21 worth), but then it has been a stormy month with several overcast days. What we don't know is how much of that energy we have actually used and how much has gone into the grid, as this is not metered.

To gain from having PV, we need to use the electricity when it is being generated - in the middle of the day when the sun is shining. For the average household, where people work outside of the home during the day, they are expected to only use 35% of the energy produced. Working from home means that we have PCs on during the day and it also gives me the opportunity to switch the washing machine on when the sun comes out. Our average daily consumption is 15 kWh, so in winter we shouldn't have a problem using all the electricity from the PV, but we will have to wait and see how we get on in summer when more electricity is produced.

I have my electricity monitor set up on my desk, which displays the electricity that we are using from the grid every 30 seconds. If it drops to zero, I know that I need to switch on my appliances that are loaded and ready, or charge some batteries. If I don't use the electricity it will go into the grid and be used by someone else, but if I can use it, then I will reduce my electricity consumption.

I have been debating whether to include PV in my series of energy saving measures. My aim for the series is to give sound, specific, how-to advice for simple and cheap energy saving measures. I am benefiting from PV for free, but this opportunity won't last forever and my readers from other countries can't benefit from it. However your governments may have similar schemes that you can benefit from, and it is always worth asking. There may be grants or opportunities available that you haven't realised.

My reluctance with PV is because it is always important to spend money on insulating your house first, which will give far better energy savings in the UK and make your home warmer. The government has tried to address this within the FiTs, and domestic properties need to achieve at least a D rating to receive the top FiT rate.

The government should be focusing far more on energy saving measures first, but because reducing energy consumption would reduce profits for the energy companies and VAT (tax) for the government, it isn't much of a priority for them. Not at least until there are enough voices pushing for action. So for the sake of saving energy, reducing carbon emissions and limiting energy company profits, I have included PV.

Energy saving no.4: Install photo-voltaic panels to convert energy from the sun into electricity
For anyone based in the UK who is interested in finding out more, checkout the Energy Savings Trust website for its PV calculator, or the FiTs website for advice. There are only a couple of companies offering to install panels on your roof for free and I used A Shade Greener, who are the largest I think. You have to have a large enough unshaded roof facing roughly south to qualify. I can only tell you about my experience with them which has been good, and I haven't received any payment or incentives from them to promote them. If you decide you want to sign up with them, they are offering £50 for you and the person who recommended you. Please mention that I recommended you and I will donate my £50 to Shelter, a charity that helps homeless people in the UK. If you are local to Loughborough and have money to invest in PV, the Transition Group has a scheme for buying PV panels with a local supplier. Other Transition Groups may have something similar.

Is there anything else you need to know? I will keep you updated on my electricity savings in future posts. I would love to hear from you if you decide to install PV panels, or if you have already had them installed then let me know what you think of them.

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