Essential guide to solar panels

Before investing in this eco-friendly solar panels, consider your home’s location and research the latest money-making incentives

‘By 2020, solar could be cost-competitive with gas and no longer need any kind of government support. But we will only reach that point if it provides a stable policy framework and a level playing field with other technologies,’ Paul Barwell, CEO of the Solar Trade Association, says. Before buying in this eco-friendly solution, it’s worth considering your home’s location and researching the latest money-making incentives. Take a look at the following advice to discover how you could benefit financially and the types of solar panels available.

Is your location suitable?

Before investing in a solar PV (photo voltaic) system, consider your home’s location and how much sun it benefits from during the day, which will ultimately affect the amount of energy you can generate, and the financial benefits received. Location is key in working out the amount of available sunlight that hits your solar panels and converts to usable energy. If the panels are not facing south or angled towards the sun’s elevation, the amount of energy produced will inevitably be lower. For example, panels in southern Scotland might generate around 15 per cent less than an equivalent system in southern England, where levels of sunlight may be more prolonged. Think about the surrounding area, too. If your panels are fitted just to the north of a large tree or building, they’ll be shaded at certain times of the day or year, and this will dramatically reduce output, potential income and savings.

Do I need planning permission?

In many cases, installing solar panels falls under permitted development rights, with no need to apply for planning permission. However, you’ll need to check which limits and conditions apply to you.

Planning permission may be required if you live in a Conservation Area and the roof faces the highway, or if your home is listed. See for more details.

Can I benefit from the latest financial incentives?

If you live in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, you’ll be able to claim the Government-backed feed-in tariff payments once your solar PV system is installed, provided you meet the relevant criteria – which will be assessed by a certified installer


  • Receive £260 in feed-in tariff payments per year
  • Save £60 per year on electricity bills
  • Earn £310 in income/savings per year
  • See a payback period of around 16 years
  • Expect the system to last for 25 years or more

Sell energy back

If you are registered for the feed-in tariff, you’ll be paid money in return for exporting electricity to the grid. Most domestic systems don’t have an export meter, so the amount is assumed to be 50 per cent of the total generated. It’s a good idea to have a smart meter fitted to measure the exact amount of energy exported, and to ensure you’re paid accurately for the amount generated, which is likely to be more than half of the total. If you don’t register a new system with the scheme, your surplus electricity will still be exported but you won’t be paid. There is no cap on the amount you can earn. You will receive quarterly payments in arrears and you’ll need to submit a generation reading every three months to keep payment records up to date.

Choose the right type of solar panel for your propery

There are four main systems available for domestic micro generation:

1. Photovoltaic (PV)

photovoltaic solar panels on a red tile roof house

This type of solar panel captures the sun’s energy using photovoltaic cells, then converts it into electricity which can be used around the house for powering appliances and lighting. PV is currently the most common type of solar panel in the UK, with nearly half a million homes having had them installed. The panels are most commonly fitted onto pitched roofs.

Under the Feed-in Tariff scheme, if you install eligible electricity-generating technology, including solar PV panels, you could get money back from your energy supplier by selling surplus electricity back to the grid. You will also receive a set tariff for any electricity you generate (even the energy you use yourself). In addition to FiT tariffs, harnessing solar electricity will help to cut your energy bills.

As solar electricity is a renewable energy, you’ll be reducing your home’s carbon footprint, too. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that a typical domestic solar PV system could save over a tonne of carbon dioxide per year — and more than 30 tonnes over its lifetime.

Solar photovoltaic energy is measured in units called kilowatts peak (kWp). This refers to the rate at which the PV cells generate energy when operating at peak performance — which is in direct sunlight during the summer months.

Costs and saving

Installing a domestic 4kWp solar PV system costs around £5,000 to £8,000. These systems can generate approximately the amount of electricity that an average household uses in a year — around 3,800 kilowatt hours.

A PV solar panel should last 25 years, but parts may need replacing during this time. Your installer should advise you on maintenance and how to check your system is functioning properly; however, the panels generally need little attention.

‘Rent a roof’ deals

Some companies offer to install solar PV panels for free on a ‘rent a roof’ basis, meaning the installer owns the system and claims the FiT, plus any income from energy exported back to the grid. The advantage for the homeowner is that they obtain free energy when the system generates, without having to invest in the initial outlay costs. However, be aware of the implications that renting your roof out may have on your mortgage (with some leases for solar panels being as long as 25 years, it could affect remortgaging or selling on).

2. Thermal

solar thermal tube panels on a black tiled roof house

Using roof-mounted panels to heat water, a solar thermal system can provide an average three-bedroom semi-detached home with around a third of its hot water demands. A complication of the systems is that they need direct sunlight to work, so north-facing roofs are unsuitable.

You’ll still need a boiler, immersion heater or heat pump to make the water hotter, and provide hot water when solar energy isn’t available, such as on overcast days.




Costs and savings

The typical cost of installing a solar thermal system is around £3,000 to £5,000. The Green Deal has helped many UK homeowners finance this initial outlay, and the RHI can also provide some financial help.

Homeowners may be eligible to receive payments for the heat generated from their solar water heating system through RHI; for example, an average four-person household could receive a £330 RHI payment per year.

Savings from solar thermal panels are moderate — the system can provide most of a household’s hot water in the summer, but much less in winter.

  • The Energy Saving Trust calculates that homeowners should typically see a saving of £60–£70 each year on their water-heating bill.
  • The systems will also cut your carbon emissions by between 230kg and 510kg of CO2 a year for a typical installation.
  • Maintenance costs are low and most solar water heating systems come with a 5–10-year warranty.

solar photovoltaic thermal panels on a modern curved sedum roof home

Costs and savings

  • One square metre of solar PV tiles will cost around £500, excluding installation costs.
  • They tend to produce energy less efficiently than panels, generating at between 50W and 120W per square metre, whereas panels produce more than 134W for the same area.

How to boost the benefits of solar panels

There are things you can do to ensure a reasonable payback on your solar installation, says Brian Horne, energy expert at the Energy Saving Trust.

  • Get a good deal: make sure you request quotes from several installers
  • Pick a good location: Ideally, you will want a system that is angled between 30 and 50 degrees and facing between south-east and south-west. Avoid areas of shade.
  • Use more of the electricity yourself: put on the dishwasher, washing machine and tumble dryer during the day, but all at different times. You could invest in a solar diverter, which heats up a hot water cylinder when the sun shines, or a battery system to store the electricity for use in the evening. However, more research is needed on the cost benefits of these.

And finally…your questions answered

Is it possible to go ‘solar only’?For people who live in isolated properties, with no realistic option for a mains connection, solar PV is one of the options for providing some level of electricity supply. You will need a substantial battery store, and most people would also opt for a diesel generator to top the system up when necessary. An off grid electricity system will never provide the consistency of supply that you get with the mains, but for some homes it is the only realistic option.

If you already have mains there is no point in even considering disconnecting. It is theoretically possible to do so, but you will spend a fortune on equipment that takes up a lot of space in exchange for a variable supply that won’t be able to run all of your existing appliances. And you won’t be helping the planet much either.

If you have the mains, use it, and if you fit enough solar panels you may generate more than you use over the year. If you want to call that ‘solar only’ then that’s up to you.

What more needs to be done to improve the number of people who can benefit from solar power?

Getting solar PV panels fitted to your roof is now cheaper and easier than it has ever been. As installation numbers have gone up, prices have come down, and the Feed-in Tariff rates have been reduced to reflect this. Unfortunately it now looks like the tariff rates have been reduced too far, too quickly, and the number of installations has dropped dramatically. If this trend continues then we will need to see a modest increase in tariffs to encourage a resurgence in installations. This will help bring prices down to the point where support is no longer necessary, and solar electricity becomes competitive in its own right.


Is solar panel cheaper than gas and electricity?

Solar power is not currently the cheapest way to generate electricity, as most of our electricity comes from large gas and coal fired power stations, which are still the most affordable. However, solar has now become low priced enough to offer a useful contribution to the national electricity supply, with only limited support to reflect the carbon dioxide savings that result, and the benefit of generating electricity close to where it is used. For the householder, solar power is unlikely to be cost effective yet without Feed-in Tariff support, but it could become affordable without support in the coming years.

How much will installation cost?

The cost of solar PV installations has come down dramatically over the past few years. Recent installations suggest a likely price of around £5,000 to £8,000 for a typical domestic installation (4 kilowatts peak output). As prices have been falling it may be possible to get a significantly lower installation quote now. However, we would advise anyone considering solar PV to get several quotes, and to check the quotes and the installers’ credentials carefully, to make sure you are getting a fair price but also a good quality installation. The cost of the panels is always a significant part of the installation cost. There are also several other pieces of equipment to pay for, including the inverter (which converts the electricity to mains voltage AC), the generation meter, the panel mounting system and the wiring. There is also the cost of paying someone to supply, install, connect and register the panels and, for most systems, the cost of scaffolding.

Do you have to pay to be connected to the grid?

Not directly, but you do have to pay to use a registered installer who will ensure that your grid connection is safe and legal, and will notify the District Network Operator once your system is connected.

Will it cost to maintain solar panels once installed?

The solar panels themselves are unlikely to need any maintenance during their expected 25 year life. If a panel fails it should be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty – check the details of this and all other guarantees before agreeing to an installation!

One piece of equipment that probably will need replacing is the inverter – this is the box of electronics that converts the solar output into 240V electricity that can be connected to your supply. The inverter is unlikely to last as long as the panels, and will not have the same length of warranty, so you should expect to have to replace it at some point during the life of the system. Expect to pay around £600 to £800.

Images: iStock (PV and Thermal), Newform Energy (PVT), Solar Slate (Tiles and Slates)

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