During a cold spell earlier this year when the temperature dropped to -1°C, our solar photovoltaic (PV) panels were covered by a layer of snow, but still producing electricity in the winter sun.
It certainly gave me a warm inner glow and was conclusive proof that we’d done the right thing by investing in this once-maligned technology. And we’re not alone. The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) – the body that accredits installers – recently reported that British households installed a record number of solar panels in the first half of the year. On average, more than 17,000 did so every month this year, a flurry of activity not seen since 2021 when many raced to install panels before government subsidies were reduced.
PV panels convert sunlight into usable electricity through – typically silicon – cells, embedded in a metal frame with a glass casing, although there are now tile, glass or even grass options. Solar storage batteries store the electricity generated to use when your system isn’t generating any electricity; the panels then either power the house or charge the battery, with excess power exported to the grid.
As I’ve experienced, solar batteries can even be useful in low-light conditions, and you’re able to use your stored energy at any time of day. With a connected solar monitoring system, you can track your system’s performance over time, troubleshoot problems, and monitor its financial performance. This monitors prices in the market for mains electricity and learns your profile and habits as a home occupier. And by shifting power use, such as running the washing machine in peak sunshine and by charging the battery up at night in the winter, using discounted off-peak electricity, most households should be able to drastically reduce their electricity bills. It’s not quite a smart house but it sure is clever.
Sticking on solar panels used to be seen as ‘slinging the bling’ to generate revenue but is now fundamentally around energy security and generating your own electricity. It’s a way to support the National Grid and do your bit towards a climate emergency – as well as getting paid by your provider per kilowatt for generated power. A house with solar panels benefits the homeowner, who isn’t at the whim of energy prices, and also helps to retain the property’s value. This is bound to attract buyers, more of whom are seeking a decent EPC grade in the property spec and value this technology in the same way they now look for a car charger.
Whether driven by comfort, environment or cost, solar panel installation is still relatively small-scale – although not for much longer. New builds have a legal requirement to incorporate energy-saving measures under SAP (Standard Assessment Procedure) regulations, so installing solar panels helps achieve a better EPC rating. Some developers are keen to do this, but others see it as an additional cost with limited pay-back – not a great attitude. However, the Environmental Audit Committee recently recommended that solar technologies should be included as part of proposals for the Future Homes Standard to make panels compulsory on all new builds, which would certainly speed up adoption of the technology.
But perhaps even more significant is Octopus Energy’s recent decision to allow all electrical contractors to fit solar panels without MCS certification. This is big news and could herald the push that the UK needs on our frustratingly slow journey towards Net Zero. Consumers have had to use an MCS-certified system to get funding under the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) scheme – requiring electricity suppliers to pay them for surplus low-carbon electricity, easing the initial cost of installation. Octopus Energy’s announcement that installations can now be self-declared as compliant by an installer or the consumer is a complete game changer. It obviously took the MCS by surprise, which first said it wasn’t sure this was a good idea because it might lead to more cowboy installations but then removed this statement. This was perhaps an acknowledgement that they were too hasty to dismiss the idea or they realised that this was the way the tide was turning. Either way, it will give householders access to more installers who are trained to fit solar panels but aren’t certified. And it certainly fits with the government’s professed desire for consumers to have more confidence to invest in small-scale renewables and its aim to make that transition easier.
I’m sure we’ll see more electricity providers like Octopus questioning whether insisting on more accreditation on top of electricity installation regulations is really necessary. It’s a positive move if these installations are of a good standard, which obviously depends on installers having been trained correctly. Hopefully the government’s announcement earlier this summer that it’s putting £8.8 million into retrofit installer training – a ray of sunshine in this gloomy summer – will go some way to addressing this.