Solar Panels: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Solar photovoltaics (PV), better known as solar panel electricity systems, or simply solar panels, use a special type of cell to capture the sun’s rays.  Photovoltaic cells absorb the energy from sunlight, converting it into an energy source that you can use to power your home, reduce your electricity bill, and even make extra money. 

My friends know me as the guy who will stop at nothing to save money—and as an architect that designed my own home, plenty of my projects to do so revolve around costs associated with the house I live in.  (Which also makes sense from a practical point of view—home energy costs account for an astounding amount of pretty much everyone’s budget).  So it may surprise you (it certainly did them) to learn that initially I had no plans at all to use solar panels on my new residence.

Solar Panels Have Come a Long, Long Way

And boy do I feel silly about that now.  But you also have to put it into perspective—perspective being my ignorance in regards to just how much solar panels have improved over the past couple of decades. When they first emerged on the scene, they showed potential but little practical advantage for someone who didn’t, say, live in sunny Los Angeles, California.  They needed direct sunlight and lots of it, and the energy conversion and storage systems they used just weren’t super-efficient.

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Of course, my ignorance isn’t really an excuse… I mean, twenty years ago, my “mobile” phone was a contraption the size of a breadbox, and I’ve certainly caught up in the times there.  But for whatever reason, I just hadn’t stayed up to date on solar panels, probably because before building my own home I didn’t really have the opportunity to make use of them (renter’s woes).

Today’s solar panels are remarkably efficient. More importantly for those of us who don’t live in sunny California, they do not need direct sunlight to generate electricity. Sure, it helps, but even on an overcast day here, they’re still money in the bank. Speaking of…

The Benefits of Using Solar Panels

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There are four big benefits to using solar panels, and three of them are about saving money, which definitely caught my eye once I’d realized that I’d goofed by discounting the possibility.  The fourth, well, it’s a pretty significant benefit too.  Saving money is pretty great, but I can’t complain about helping to save the planet, either.  So, without further ado:

  1. Lower your energy bills.
    The sun doesn’t charge you, which is more than can be said for the local electric company. Yes, there’s an out of pocket charge for installation, but after that—it’s all gravy.  Every minute those panels are soaking up rays, your bank account is recouping energy costs.
  2. The government actually pays you for using solar panels.
    This part had me picking my jaw up off the floor. The government pays you for the electricity you generate even if you use it all. That’s right, you get to double dip on this one. Not only do you save on your energy bill, but you actually get a kickback just for making and using your own energy. 
  1. Surplus energy? How does triple dipping sound?
    Yeah, so the same system (the Feed-in Tarriff scheme) that pays you for making your own energy to use will also actually buy your surplus energy if you happen to make too much. So there’s no need to worry about going too big! The more energy you make, the more you save, and none of it goes to waste. 
  1. Save money and the planet.
    How’s this for icing on the cake? It seems like most of the time we’re asked to chip in and save the planet it involves some sort of sacrifice. But solar panels are anything but! On the contrary, they fatten your wallet while they reduce your carbon footprint.  Solar energy is renewable—it’s not like you’re using up the sun, after all—and totally green. It doesn’t contaminate the atmosphere with a bunch of pollutants and it doesn’t add more unwanted carbon dioxide to the air. The effects are pretty significant, too: your new PV system could save up to a 1 ½ tonnes of CO2 a year.

Number Crunching

So just how much does it cost to install solar panels, and how much does it actually save you? I’m not going to beat around the bush here—the bigger the system you install, the more you save—not just in raw numbers, but in terms of making your investment back sooner.  But even a small system will save you money over time. That’s one of the really great things about the technological advantages that have granted us the solar panels we use today. Panels take very little maintenance, and can last over 25 years! So when I say they’re a long term investment, I’m really not exaggerating.

A 4kWp system generates quite a bit of electricity—3,800 kilowatt hours a year, and saves two tonnes of CO2 yearly.  That’s more than ¾ of your typical household electricity needs, and costs £5,000 – 8,000 to install.  At £500-£650 a year (minimum) Feed-in-Tariff payments on eligible systems, plus significant savings on one’s electricity bill, today’s panels pay for themselves sooner than you might think.

So… Should You?

If you can afford the investment, my answer is an unequivocal YES.  Yes, you should. For your own future, for your wallet, and for the rest of the world.  Plus, the sooner you get in on the solar panel scheme, the more money you’ll save, because of government pay outs.  Understandably, the government is making a serious push for people to put less strain on the grid and lower the UK’s carbon footprint.  Early adopters will undoubtedly get the best benefits monetarily, which will help to offset the cost of initial installation.  If it’s not the right time for you to invest in solar panels, you may want to start putting away a little something so you can in the future.

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