Should I install electricity generating solar panels on my house?

07 Jun 2013

The question presupposes you have already made sure that your home is already as energy efficient as it can be, as of course the solar panel market is all about promoting the possibility of lower energy bills. Before considering solar panels, you should of course consider such things as loft insulation, cavity wall insulation, double glazing and an efficient boiler.

If the lure of solar panels becomes too great, then the above question becomes a reality for you.

There are currently two main types of solar panels. Solar water heating, and the more popular solar electricity. Both use panels on your roof, and both capture the sun's energy the former by harnessing the sun's heat, and the latter by converting the sun's rays into electricity using photovoltaic cells.

Solar water heating

These are solar panels which use the sun's heat to heat your domestic hot water. Such a system will cost between £3,500 and £5,000. Financial support may be available under the Green Deal. You may be able to receive payments for the heat you generate from a solar water heating system through the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive which is expected to be announced this summer for domestic buildings. You may also receive help with installation costs through the Renewable Heat Premium Payment scheme. However, currently, system savings are reported as moderate – less than £100 per year – though the system could provide most of your hot water in the summer, but much less during colder weather.

Solar electricity

'Solar electricity' on the other hand produces electricity by converting sunlight which can be used to run household appliances and lighting. In addition, any unused surplus can actually be exported back into the electricity grid. However, this system is expensive technology (approximately £10,000 – £12,000 for an average system) but financial support is currently available under the government's feed-in tariff scheme (which the above RHI will be similar to) and the Green Deal.

For the purposes of this article we shall focus on solar electricity panels.

To install or not to install – clearly a subjective decision, but there are certain overlooked negatives that should be balanced with the perceived advantages which solar electricity panels are marketed as having.

1. Appearance

The government are already aware that present technology makes solar panels potentially athletically unpleasant. Planning permission requirements provide that panels on a building should be sited "so far as is practicable, to minimise the effect on the external appearance of the building and the amenity of the area".

We all witness the current look of the panels by simply driving around our local communities. Unfortunately, views expressed on the internet alone bear witness to the fact that many people consider them to be 'ugly' visually or simply by how intrusive their installation has been carried out. Bearing in mind the initial cost and therefore the time period before which the panels pay for themselves, this will mean householders could be stuck with – to draw an analogy with the mobile phone industry – a 'brick' mobile phone, while changes in technology produce the smart phone – thinner or even completely different types of electricity generating equipment (slates, roof tiles, and simple window glass). As we shall see further below, this is all the more acute with the method – and therefore duration of ownership – of these panels.

2. Planning and building control permissions

As mentioned, always consider the need for planning permission and building control consent when considering installation of solar panels. Failing to comply may end in media headlines about you.

3. Method of ownership

You can of course purchase the panels outright, where you are then responsible for maintenance and repair. Alternatively, the majority of home owners have opted for a cheaper method, avoiding the initial cost where the PV panel provider retains ownership of the panels and instead the owner grants the provider a lease, usually for 25 years, of their roof and airspace above. The provider installs the panels for free and provides free electricity to the home-owner, and they retain the income from the feed-in tariff. The attraction to the home-owner is obvious: free electricity and at no cost.

However, the lease is the issue. Again, the internet is littered with warnings. A lease is a legal document, and your lawyer should advise you on its written terms, and advise on the pitfalls and implications of signing it. For instance, does it address the quality of installation and repair of damage caused, insurance of the panels during and after installation, maintenance of the equipment, who obtains planning/building control consents, temporary removal rights for your roof repairs/replacement, clauses to require an upgrade in the quality of the equipment as technology improves, and clauses allowing early termination of the lease (in case you find it difficult or an adverse factor to sell your property).

4. Mortgage companies need to consent

Media reports like this highlight the fact that mortgage companies will need to provide written consent to an owner granting a lease of their roof space for solar panels as well as a buyer purchasing a property with a pre-existing lease. Reports show that not all lenders will consent, and even if they do, a remortgage attempt may find that the new lender will not. A catch 22. Conveyancing solicitors are also affected, as they must ensure their own compliance with the Council of Mortgage Lenders Handbook, which prescribed the minimum requirements of mortgage lenders, for granting consent to a lease of a roof space.

5. Problems re-selling your house

As mentioned, panels are not pretty to many people, so this will immediately restrict potential house buyers who may either reduce their offer to cover panel removal costs (causing you immediate loss), or they will simply be put off making an offer entirely, if the hassle of removal is deemed too much. Indeed, the hassle will be off-putting in the case of a leased roof space, as their lender may refuse to lend while it is in place – or they may be worried about their own attempt at remortgaging or re-selling years down the line, and the lease itself may not be able to be ended early or not without excessively high penalty payments.

So, when considering solar panels, consider the method of ownership carefully. If it is a lease, make sure you take independent professional advice. Conveyancing solicitors will be pleased to help.