Bring me Sunshine! The PhotoVoltaic Phenomenon

Bring me Sunshine! The Photovoltaic Phenomenon

By Pam  

Update: 31/10/11


Today the Coalition government have shown yet again that they are not “the greenest government ever”, by announcing plans to cut Ed Miliband’s feed-in tariffs by half from 43p to 21p, at very short notice. This will mean many lost jobs in the industry, and be a disincentive for people to consider micro-generation. 

Bring me Sunshine! Echoes of smiles from Eric and Ernie. I hope they brought a smile to your day! But sunshine might make you smile even more if it is earning you a tax-free lump sum, providing you with a free supply of electricity, plus helping you to save the planet.

The recent headlines report on rising energy bills and the fear of fuel poverty deaths. That is nothing to smile about. Electricity produced from sunlight and other means might be the answer to assist those facing fuel poverty. It was Ed Miliband in The Energy Act 2008 who proposed a deal to encourage homeowners to consider investment in micro-generation of electricity. Peak Oil is a very real prospect, and we have very real problems already, as many face a winter wondering if they can afford to heat their homes or put food on the table, especially as unemployment is growing and child poverty is so high.

I wonder also whether we should be looking at using renewable energy such as photovoltaic panels on the roofs of public buildings such as schools and hospitals and offices.

There are an increasing number of companies recognising the promising future of solar energy, and the costs are falling compared to fossil fuels. The Solar Co-op supports groups who want to make solar power a reality where they live, and are establishing co-operatives that are issuing community shares to fund the installation of solar panels on public buildings.

At present, solar PV is economically viable in the UK for homeowners, businesses and investors only because of government subsidies given out via feed-in tariffs (Fits). But the new analysis suggests that falling PV panel prices and rising fossil fuel prices could together make large-scale solar installations cost-competitive without government support within a decade – sooner than is usually assumed.

Without the Feed-in-Tariffs it is unlikely that homeowners would be able to afford panels.  The Guardian reports here of the reducing costs of photovoltaic cells. A recent report was commissioned by the Solar Trade Association (STA) from Ernst & Young’s energy and environmental infrastructure advisory unit in response to the recent shake-up of Fits, which saw government support for large solar systems significantly reduced. This was a result of the government’s decision to cap the total that could be spent via Fits and weight the limited budget in favour of domestic and other small-scale installations. It is predicted that, with continued support in the short term, the levellised cost of large-scale solar will be no higher than retail energy prices by 2016-19. This suggests that within 10 years companies with large electricity demands will find it cheaper to install solar than to buy energy via the grid in the traditional way even without government subsidies.

With considerations also of Climate Change and sustainability of the dangers to health of continued use of nuclear and fossil fuels further development and expansion of solar generated power and other renewables cannot come soon enough.

Click on this link to see current and plan renewable energy in UK. Renewables Map 

How about Solar Power? Is it for me? 

It took some convincing for me to be willing to part with hard-earned cash just to put up a few panels on my roof. However, I did agree to consider to look into this  and so visits were arranged for surveys and visits from salesmen (yes, they were all men!) All of them seemed so very keen to sell and fit PV panels that I became more and more suspicious. Some of them would look at the roof on Google Earth and give an estimate. Others came equipped with compasses and inspected the loft and were more specific. At times they seemed to contradict each other.  It all seemed too good to be true. After around seven visits I discovered I had learned a great deal and I had to agree it seemed to be an offer worth taking. And you just might too think so, so here’s what I found out.

The Photovoltaic Phenomenon  

Q:  I’ve  heard some people are having these panels fitted for free., and they get free electricity too. So, is there a catch? 

A: Some local authorities are fitting panels retrospectively to properties, others are fitting them in new builds and so the tenants have the benefit of free electricity during the day-time. Schemes like this seem an ideal way of keeping down rents, and reducing fuel bills of tenants. Certainly, the prospect of fuel poverty and deaths resulting from  increases in fuel costs is a very real fear.

Some companies will fit them for free for home owners too.  The contract applies to the property not the person. You sign up to rent your roof for the next 25 years, and the company claims all of the feed-in tariff from the government. If you want to sell your house in the future, the contract would also be binding to the new owner, so it might make it more difficult to sell your house, if you need to move.

Q: What is a feed in tariff? What is in this for me?

A: Feed-In-Tariffs are payments from the Government to ordinary energy users for the renewable electricity they generate. They were introduced  to help increase the level of renewable energy in the UK towards our legally binding target of 15% of total energy from renewables by 2020.

  • A tax free payment for all the electricity you produce, even if you use it yourself, so you can expect a guaranteed income. At present for up to 4KWh this is 43p per unit but this will be reduced in 2012 to 39p a unit.   It is inflation proof too. For arrays of above 4K, the tariff is at the lower figure. Future Feed-in-Tariffs may vary in the future, so it will depend on the figure set when you sign the contract. 
  • FIT Spreadsheet

  • Additional bonus payments for electricity you export into the grid, which you do not use yourself. (NB this is by comparison a much smaller sum- just 3.1p per KWh)
  • A reduction on your standard electricity bill, from using energy you produce yourself, so do not need to buy from your provide. How much you save will  obviously depend on your typical consumption. But it’s worth bearing in mind the soaring energy costs being reported recently.

A typical domestic solar electricity system with an installation size of 2.9kWp could earn:

  • £1,060 a year from the Generation Tariff
  • £40 a year from the Export Tariff
  • £90 a year reduction of current electricity bills

to give a total saving of around £1,190 per year (tax-free). See the Energy Saving Trust’s Cashback Calculator to find out how much you could earn.

Q I have heard about high-pressure salespeople insisting on people signing up there and then.

A. Some companies were found to be using dubious sales techniques and lost their licence.

Which carried out an extensive report.

Which reports of their investigation

Of the 12 solar photovoltaic companies investigated, we found many issues.

  •             Two used pressure-sell tactics, which are banned under the code.
  •             Five did not go inside the loft to check suitability for installation of solar PV.
  •             Five sent a salesperson not a surveyor but still gave a quote, estimate or price.
  •             Seven didn’t take into account the fact that part of the roof was in shade, so putting solar panels there was questionable.
  •             Eight did not ask questions about energy usage or lifestyle.
  •             Eight underestimated the time time it would take for the system to pay itself. We found that the methodology companies have to use under building regulation to estimate payback and savings is flawed and can lead to inaccurate predictions. Whilst we are calling for this to be improved, it is worth taking these values with caution.
  •             10 failed to mention that the inverter (which is an essential part of a PV system and turns the current generated into useable AC current) would need replacing earlier, even when prompted about maintenance requirements and ongoing costs.

Q What is renewable electricity?

 A.  It is power produced from a sustainable source such as solar, wind, or biomass. Electricity from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas or from nuclear stations is not renewable. Sooner or later, resources will run out.

Q. How would I be helping the environment? 

A. By generating electricity from sunlight, you would not be using electricity which, if produced from fossil fuels would add carbon dioxide to the environment. Scientists have shown this is causing climate change. It also would mean that you are not contributing to the problem of nuclear waste, or of pollution caused by the mining of uranium around the world. 


Q. Are these panels all the same?
A. No, there are several types. Photovoltaic cells are manufactured from a variety of different types of materials. The most significant is crystalline silicon. There are a broad range of different PV cells produced by over 100 manufacturers. There are 4 main types of commercially available cells:

At present monocrystalline PV and polycrystalline PV are the most common and they account for approximately 93% of all modules sold globally in large and small-scale systems. Amorphous silicon accounts for approximately 4.2% of the global market sales.

The fourth type of PV cell, is called a hybrid as it consists of a crystalline cell coated in an amorphous layer. These are the most efficient, but they also the most expensive. Currently the Sanyo 240 W panels are the most efficient on the market but it is expected that technology will lead to the development of even more efficient and cheaper panels .

Q: How long will it take for me to get my money back?

A: The pay back time may be as low as 7-8 years,  which would you a guaranteed tax-free income for around 18 years! That will come in handy with energy costs are rising. It’s all index linked too  to protect from inflation. Companies will give you a prediction of the amount of energy you could produce and the tariff, but obviously  it is not possible to be precise since it depends on so many factors including the weather. Calculations are based on a Sheffield postcode.  If you live further South then you could generate more electricity than predicted.

Q: Could I expect help with all of the paperwork? It all sounds very complicated.

A:  Reputable companies should assist you here. If you decide to have panels fitted on your home you should contact your electricity company of your intention to have a micro-generation installed. They will send you a form which you return with 5 days of your installation . It is important to check that the company fitting you panels is registered with the Micro-generation-Certification Scheme which links with financial incentives including Feed-in Tariffs

Q: Will all of the equipment last the 25 years?

A: The photovoltaic panels should last a very long time – though a small reduction is efficiency in 25 years is to be expected ( but there still should be around 80% after 25 years compared with when newly fitted). However, you should be aware that the Inverter which converts the DC to an AC current will probably need to be replaced at some stage, and so possible replacements should be costed in.  There was some contradiction  as to where to place the inverter. Some suggested as near to the panels so that the DC cables were as short as possible to reduce energy loss, and others suggested that the inverter should not be allowed to get too hot. Since the loft is the nearest place to the panels, but also the hottest position efficiency may have to be offset against the expected lifetime of the inverter.

Q: Are all houses suitable for fitting photovoltaic panels?

A: The location of the solar panels is very important in order to maximize the performance and energy yield from the system. The ideal site is south facing at an angle of between 30 and 40 degrees, so that the array receives the maximum amount of irradiation possible. However, other orientations such as south east or south west can be viable, with a relatively low drop in expected performance.

Another factor to consider is shade. Latest technology is improving all the time, but if your house is shaded by trees or buildings this will have a considerable effect on the amount of energy which you would be able to convert into electricity. Panels could be fitted on other structures other than roofs so this is something you could look into.

Q: Where are these panels made?

A:  Some mono-crystalline panels (Sharp) are produced in Wrexham. The hybrid panels (Sanyo) are produced in China.  It is worth noting here, that as with many things there are negative factors, and the panels which are produced in China for example, are not only energy-intensive they are are also polluting, as mentioned in The Guardian

“Although solar is seen as clean energy in terms of carbon emissions, the production of many components is energy intensive and polluting. Toxic discharges from the factory killed large numbers of fish and regulators have previously ordered the company to suspend operations, according to the domestic media.”

In view of this, if the environment, rather than your energy bills is your main consideration then you may wish to consider REC panels, which, produced using hydro-electric power in Norway are reported to be the most environmentally-friendly panels

The fact is that there is a lot of room to improve these industry standards. The majority of solar PV manufacturing isn’t all that green, it is actually very energy intensive and wasteful. But it doesn’t have to be and I know that some solar panel installers (ethical solar is one that I have heard of more recently have been very careful to source panels that are a lot GREENER then conventional ones.

The panels they install are manufactured in Norway, where the manufacturing process is powered by hydropower as opposed to coal (which is usually the case for Chinese factories). REC (Norway) use a silicon purification process, using Fluidized Bed Reactor (FBR) which saves a large amount of electricity and lowers the cost. Also Innotech panels are made out of restored solar cells (so the waste of the solar industry) while they use hydropower to power the manufacturing process as well. REC and Innotech are demonstrating that while being greener reduced costs can be passed onto consumers having solar panel installations.

Having listened to several sales-people, a fair bit of and also discussing various options, and how it works in practice with individuals who have  already had photovoltaic panels fitted, it does seem that for many this is a very good scheme which will certainly help cushion the spiralling energy costs.

But it will not be for everybody, as clearly it depends on where you live, what sort of property you live in and its orientation and shading. I certainly would advise you to do your homework, get in several quotes, and also if possible to make the most of the opportunity of the higher tariffs, which will still be available until the Spring.

I am looking forward to mine arriving in the next couple of weeks.

More From Think Left

Soaking-up-the-sun Think Left

Some of The Scientific Evidence for Climate Change Think Left

Peak Oil, Neo-Liberalism and Think Left Think Left

The Coal-ition Think Left

 HVDC Power Grids Think Left

Energy Production from Wasted Heat Think Left

 Somerset: Nuclear or Tidal? Think Left

Coal is our Heritage not our Future! Think Left

Clean Coal (Another Financial Device for the City?)  Think Left

Further Reading and References

Daily Mail: Turn your home into a power station

Zero Carbon Britain

The Solar Co-op

Guardian Solar Panel Prices Drop

Solar PV Cheaper than Coal solarpv blog

Renewables Map 

The Renewable Energy Centre

Solar Facts and Advice

Energy Savings Trust Feed-in-Tariffs

Independent Fossil Fuel Energy Bills to Soar

Energy Savings Trust PV Panels


Micro-generation Certification

Sun Ray Solar PV Company

Evo Energy

The downside of PV:Guardian:   Chinese PV Factory protest

Green Building Forum Discussion on Green panels – Norway 

Which Report Solar PV Panels

7 thoughts on “Bring me Sunshine! The PhotoVoltaic Phenomenon

  1. Why does it not surprise me that a leftist site is supporting such schemes. Typically handwringing about how the poor are struggling to pay heating bills but happily stealing taxpayers money to subsidise the middle classes latest scheme to divert funding to home owners in suitable locations. Why not wait till market forces and technological advances bring the costs down rather than subsidy and political gaming distorting the playing field. you haven’t asked for the tax rate to be raised to fund this? Why are leftists always so one dimensional and selfish. I’m sure your well meaning but just misguided…unlike Stalin and Mao. Or is Che your pin-up?


    • I debated whether to approve your comment because your remarks have a troll-ish quality. However, I wanted to say that Think-left supports mass government investment in insulation, reducing energy demand and in supporting micro-generation of energy by renewables. Rather than the billions of QE being given to the black hole of the banks, we support Green QE which would be directed towards creating jobs, new manufacturing, reducing green house gases, reducing electricity bills and eliminating the appalling amount of ill health and deaths which result from the fuel poverty. Frankly, it is a no-brainer which would additionally produce growth of the economy, employment, and skills for the 1 million 16-25y unemployed.

      With regard to your remarks about the feed-in tariffs which have been arranged for electricity produced by domestic photovoltaic panels… this is an example of the contradictions which arise when attempting to facilitate the market in combating climate change, peak oil and social ills. The greatest dangers facing this country are peak oil production by 2015, global climate change and the financial distortions created by the global financial elite. It is totally appropriate for there to be national government intervention and funding, as there would be in any disaster or wartime situation.


  2. Spain had 2.2 jobs lost for each green job created according to a 2009 study. German studies show about 200000 euros subsidy per job created. The latest study from US shows the current occupier of the Whitehouse spending (at lowest estimates) over half a million dollars per job created- it appears when Govts spend other people’s money they just ain’t wasting it they also increase unemployment due to these schemes.

    Many informed people question the current predictions about climate change. Even the CRU at East Anglia admitted– eventually…. global temps have fallen since 1995 and the labelling of CO2 as a polluting gas shows a complete lack of understanding of the life cycle of both plant and animal matter. The distortions in the Market due to funding for such schemes were proposed by such gears as Ken Lay of Enron and Al Gore. Are you comfortable by enacting their plans without deeper questioning?

    As for the banks, totally agree that their crimes warrant prosecution and prison. You were unable to justify why such government schemes aids those who can benefit but would be impossible in relieving the misery of the absolute poverty of those who are already paying higher tariffs with utility pre-payment meters- who are also subsidising those who pay by debit or on- line.

    So very expensive green jobs, jobs lost in other sections,wealth distribution from the poor to the middle classes and all in the name of the disputed climate change. What’s not to love??


  3. There is little point in continuing this discussion. You are not addressing the frame of reference that I presented, and in other respects are mistaken or ill-informed. Neoliberal capitalism is the wrong model to address the triple crunch of peak oil, financial meltdown and climate change.


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