Steep energy costs have prompted an increasing number of people to look into generating their own electricity through solar panels.
As well as saving money by producing your own power, you can also make savings from Feed-In Tariffs, which guarantee an inflation-linked income for renewable energy projects.
Another major advantage of installing solar panels is that they are environmentally friendly, and can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint. Here, we explain how solar panels work, where and how they work most efficiently, and how much they cost to install.
How do solar panels work?
Solar panels generate energy from the sun, and work by converting light into electrical power which can be connected to your property's main electricity supply.
As solar electricity is green, renewable energy, it doesn't release any harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) or other pollutants into the atmosphere.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, a typical home solar system could save over a tonne of CO2 per year.
The best homes for solar panels
Not all houses will be suitable for solar panels. Ideally, your property should be south-facing with little or no shading on the roof. If you don't have a south-facing roof, then you may still be able to install panels, but they might not be quite as effective.
Owners of listed buildings are unlikely to be allowed to install solar panels as they are more often than not highly visible. You can contact your local Energy Saving Trust Advice Centre on 0800 512 012 for more information on whether solar panels are likely to be suitable for you.
If you decide to fit them, you should notify your buildings insurance company as they will be deemed to be part of the structure of your property. Your premiums could rise if your insurer determines that you need a higher level of cover in the event that the house needs rebuilding and the panels replacing. You will also need to let your mortgage provider know.
Your home insurance will not protect you against any mechanical fault that develops in the panels themselves. If they stop working properly, check if they are under warranty. You may need to insure them separately.
When purchasing solar panels look out for the REAL Assurance and Microgeneration Certification Schemes (MCS) which show you can trust the company.
Any installer offering a system that can earn money from the Feed-In Tariff must be certified by the MCS and be a member of REAL. The MCS mark shows that the installer offers high-quality products, while the REAL Assurance Scheme is a Consumer Code which dovetails with MCS to cover pre-sales activity, contracts, completion of orders and after-sales activity.
REAL Assurance can help consumers if they are unable to resolve complaints with their provider, so offers valuable protection.
If you can't fit solar panels to your property for whatever reason, it's essential to ensure you are on a competitive energy tariff. This is especially important given recent energy price hikes. Compare the various deals on offer and see if you can make savings by switching.
How much do solar panels cost?
Solar electricity systems are given a rating in kilowatts peak (kWp). This is essentially the rate at which they generate energy at peak performance.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, the average domestic solar system is 3.5kWp and costs around £7,600, which includes Value Added Tax (VAT) at 5%. The more electricity the system you choose can generate, the more it will cost, but the more it could save you.
A 3.5kWp system can generate around 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, which is equivalent to around 75% of a typical household's electricity needs. If your system is eligible for the Feed-In Tariff, it could potentially generate savings and income of around £635 a year. This is based on a 3.5kWp solar PV system eligible for a generation tariff (part of the Feed-In Tariff) of 15.44p/kWh.
The cost of fitting solar panels vary widely between installers and products, so it is advisable to get quotes from at least three installers before choosing which company to go with. Once fitted, the panels should work for 25 years or more, although some parts may need replacing during this period.
People who install solar panels now must produce an energy performance certificate to qualify for the Feed-in Tariff. The certificates grade homes on energy efficiency, and you'll need to be grade C or above to qualify for the full tariff, otherwise you will get reduced payments. That means you'll need loft and cavity wall insulation, but you may be able to get grants towards these through the Energy Saving Trust.
Some companies offer to install solar panels for free, but if you choose this option you will only get free electricity and not the Feed-in Tariff.
*51% consumers, MoneySuperMarket data, December 2014