After the furore over price hikes in energy bills - with customers of certain companies now facing a devastating £120 annual increase - we desperately need to find ways to bring the cost of heating our homes down.
But does that simply mean 'wearing another jumper' or 'using less energy', as some company representatives like to advise us? Or is there another, better way to keep warm this winter; namely, by switching to solar panel energy instead.
Solar panels are one of the easiest ways for homeowners to be less reliant on energy providers, being relatively inexpensive and straightforward to install compared to many other kinds of renewable-energy technology. Panels are usually fitted to a pitched roof, but they can be mounted on a wall, flat roof or frame on the ground. Although they work on cloudy days, panels need a sunny position to be most effective, so a south-facing roof, which gets sun most of the day, is better than an east-facing one, which only gets morning sun.
There are two types of solar panel - ones that generate electricity (solar photovoltaics or PV), 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, which are the most popular, can also earn you money, thanks to the Government's Feed-In Tariffs scheme. If your PV system meets certain qualifications, the scheme pays you for the electricity you generate and use and also for any surplus electricity you supply to the national grid. This could give you savings and income of around £645 a year, according to the Energy Saving Trust. Use their solar-energy calculator at www.energysavingtrust.org.uk to work out how you could benefit from the scheme. The Trust says that to install an average 3.5kWp (kilowatts peak) PV system, which will produce enough electricity for around 75% of a typical household's needs, costs around £7,000.
Solar thermal panels come in at less, around £4,800 for a typical system, according to the Trust. This will provide around a third of the hot water you need at home (depending on the size of your household), but won't save you as much money - between £60 and £85 a year. As well as the solar thermal panels themselves, you'll need a boiler or immersion heater to give you additional hot water and sometimes to make the water heated by the panels a bit hotter, especially in winter. You may also need to change your boiler and hot-water cylinder to ones compatible with the panels.
If you can't afford solar panels, you don't necessarily have to do without. With rent-a-roof schemes, homeowners get solar PV panels supplied and fitted free of charge in return for leasing the roof of their home to the solar-panel supplier for up to 25 years. The homeowner gets the electricity generated by the panels free of charge (or at a reduced rate), but they have to give the panel supplier the Feed-In Tariffs income.
Rent-a-roof schemes may sound like they're a win-win solution, but they aren't as prevalent as they once were, because Feed-In Tariffs rates have been reduced and there's a new EPC (energy performance certificate) band rule. This means that your home has to have an EPC rating of band D or above (A is the most energy efficient) to get the best Feed-in Tariffs rates. If it isn't D or above, you either have to accept lower rates or make your home more energy efficient to get into a higher band. (EPCs are usually only needed when selling or renting out a property, so many people won't know what band their home falls into.)
You usually need a south, south-west or south-east facing roof to qualify for a rent-a-roof scheme, as these get most sun. How much money you'll save will depend on how many panels are fitted, how much electricity your household uses and how much is used during the day when the panels are generating the energy.
If your home is leasehold, you may need permission from the freeholder to install solar panels - the roof usually belongs to the freeholder Restrictions may also apply if you live on 'designated land', such as conservation areas, and if the building is listed - 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, which is good news if you're keen to harness the power of the sun - and when you put it as simply as that, who wouldn't be?
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