Why free solar panels are best avoided

Solar panels have always been expensive. As a result, only a small number of people have decided that the potential energy savings are worth the initial cost of buying and installing them. Isis Solar is hoping to change that. Last month it hit the headlines by announcing that it is to start handing out the panels for free – saving you the £11,000-£15,000 the average PV solar panel system costs to install. And that’s not all: Isis will fit and maintain them for 25 years, too. All you need to qualify for this fabulous-sounding deal is 24sqm of south-facing, completely unshaded roof space. 

What’s the catch?

Obviously, Isis Solar isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart. So what’s in it for them? Feed-in tariffs. Back in April a new scheme was launched whereby the government, via the utility companies, pays cash to anyone generating energy from a small-scale renewable schemes at a set level for a long period (25 years in the case of solar, read more on this here: Will solar panels pay for themselves? It’s no small amount of cash either – it can add up to between £900 and £1,450 per year. But go with Isis and you won’t get it – Isis will. And that isn’t particularly financially efficient for you.

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If you install the panels yourself, you’ll get the Fits for yourself as well as the reduced energy bills: note that, nuts as it may sound to the average tax payer, you get paid for all the electricity you produce even if you use it yourself. It may cost you a bit up front, but the cash from the government means you should have earned back the cost of the solar panels within ten years, says Miles Brignall in The Guardian. Banks are also beginning to get wind of this and some say they may be prepared to lend money towards installation. That might be worth looking into.
You may still think that the Isis deal is a good one. After all, you do get a reduced bill, and without any upfront costs. That may be so, but before you sign up, be prepared for some disappointments. PV solar panels can create electricity from daylight rather than sunlight, so even on an overcast day they should produce something. But the problem is electricity produced this way cannot be stored, so if you don’t use it immediately it will be fed back in to the national grid. This means that only the electricity you use during daylight hours will be part-provided by your panels. The rest of your electricity will still come from your energy provider, and you’ll have to pay for it. So unless you are home a lot during the day, you won’t see a huge reduction in your bills.

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Finally, if you do meet the criteria (not all of us will – 24sqm suggests a pretty big roof) and get the solar panels, note that in doing so you will committing to keeping them on your house for 25 years, and allowing Isis access to your property to maintain them throughout that time. What happens if you sell? You might find buyers who appreciate the lower bills, but you might find as many who think panels look awful and would prefer to pay their full bills than to have Isis maintenance men crawling around on their roof. Estate agents report that the response from prospective buyers can be mixed, with some appreciating the green credentials and reduced bills, but others insisting the panels are too ‘unsightly’ to live with.

Three ways to cut your energy bills

All in all, going with Isis seems to be a pretty big commitment to make in order to shave around £120 a year off your electricity bill. There are much simpler ways to both cut your bills and be more eco-friendly, if that’s what you want.

Switch supplier

If you’ve never switched energy supplier you could save yourself around £400 a year. Even if you have switched, if it was a couple of years ago you could reduce your annual bill by £100-plus if you switch again.

Insulate your roof

Most of us don’t have enough insulation in our lofts. The recommended thickness of loft insulation is 27cm, but the average house has a mere 7.5cm. Insulate your roof properly and you could save around £150 a year.

Get an Owl

The OWL wireless energy monitor attaches to your electricity supply then tells you exactly how much electricity you are using – and what it is costing you – at any given time. Get one of these and you’ll quickly learn to turn things off and use energy guzzlers less. So much so that you can shave up to 25% off your electricity bill, says The Sunday Telegraph.

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  • Phil

    1. Solar technology is still developing, so I’m not forking out kilobucks for what will very possibly be obsolete technology in 5 years time.

    2. On the other hand, if I leave the investment (& income stream) to someone else, and newer cheaper technology comes round the corner then I can’t just replace the existing system until the contract expires.

    3. However if I cogitate the incentive sheme will expire.

    By the way, what do house insurers think – are premiums affected?

  • Ralph.C

    I have just lost an item detailing the performance of the PV Solar system I recently had installed . This happened when I switched to your Conditions. Have you any way of retrieving it. I had got to the “leave comment” box.

  • Richard O

    In your article,you state that ‘only people who are home a lot in the daytime will benefit’.
    Well, since we are pensioners who spend a fair amount of time at home,it still sounds a reasonable deal to me.
    (N.B. we have already switched suppliers twice, and have the roof fully insulated)

  • 4caster

    I agree that allowing ISIS to put their system on your roof is a mug’s game. Whatever PV system you install, one unknown is how much mains electricity will cost in the future. If it escalates, as it probably will, buying a PV array will probably pay handsomely. Any household generating most of its own electricity (plus the feed-in tariff) in the daytime, and on an off-peak tariff at night, will only be paying full rate for evening use.
    The other unknown is whether a future government will renege on its commitment to pay feed-in tariffs at the agreed rate for evermore. If it looks like a money-spinner for householders they will either reduce it, tax it or stop it altogether.

  • Jerseylil

    Since solar panels have no moving parts, why do you suppose Isis maintenance men would need to crawl all over your roof – and why would they waste money sending maintenance men anyway?

    It is certainly better to borrow the money if you can do so at less than 9%, which is the estimated annual return, and is why Isis are interested in funding those not brave enough or not able to fund it themselves.

    You are paid for electricity fed into the grid at the rate of about 3p/kw, depending on who your supplier is. That is over and above the feed in tariff which is 41.3 pence per kw.

  • Mc888

    I’ve recently had a free system installed and nothing in this article would stop me from signing up again!

    The articles argument seems to be based on whether or not you had a spare £15k lying around that you wanted to invest.
    If so and you did want to invest it you would also be signing yourself up to having to stay put for at lease 10 years in order just to get your money back. Then if you do move, what a waste of 10 years investment.

    If you haven’t got £15k spare on the other hand, which I assume would be most of us! you’ve got nothing to lose.

    It’s true that these free installations do offer a ‘use it or lose it’ energy supply but if you’re savvy you could easily organise the use of the power for items such as washing machines, dishwashers etc using timer devices if you weren’t at home.

    Getting a free system gives you immediate savings, and as electricity prices keep rising, the savings will only get bigger.

  • Shailesh Lalitbhai Budhdeo

    Excellent tips from Ruth Jackson on achieving savings on electricity bills.
    I agree with Ruth that the solar panels installation is a messy business and a huge commitment and a headache with the regular maintenance which is necessary and essential element for the efficient operation of the panels and all that for a paltry average savings of around £120 a year! Anyone in their right mind can see the installation of solar panel not only a nightmare experience over a long period of time but also a ghastly sight totally unaesthetic to the public at large.

  • Sondhi

    “24sqm suggests a pretty big roof”

    not really, a roof measuring 4 m by 6 m fits the bill perfectly!

  • Faz

    The government should ensure that ALL public funded project have their roofs covered in solar panels. Indeed no new development should be allowed unless it has an element of green energy and some leement of reclying, rain water should always be captured and used for communal watering of landscaped areas.
    There is so much that the government can legislate, but they lack the will to do this!
    Have a good weekend all, Faz

  • Ohdear

    What a short-sighted article from someone who obviously has plenty of money and doesn’t need to make any savings. As someone who works (hard) from home and who is always watching the pennies I find this article rather demeaning and very shallow – panels unattractive??? Please! Who’s looking at your roof? There was also once a time when people considered re-cycling as for nutty greeny folk – now we’re all doing it so please jump into the 21st century Ms Jackson. I think you may find that as in Germany, solar panels will soon be all over and will become commonplace. I’ve applied for free solar panels from another company up here in the more northern parts and I am truly hoping that I get accepted. As for selling my property on – I’ll sell it to someone like me who wants free electricity – no problem, there are plenty of folk around who want to save money.

  • Manxmonkey

    Having just finished our first full year of solar water heating from two panels with a total of just 10 Sq metres (they are big panels on a domestic roof) we have recouped £145 of equivelent electricity savings so I’d be very surprised if 24 Sq Metres of PV only saved the same! However we were needing a new boiler and tank so went condensing boiler and HE tank as well. These have saved a substantial amount (7 bed home – includes 3 daughters!) . However I estimate the extra cost of just the panels (and without a huge energy bill increase) will take 20 years to pay for themselves!

  • Madeinengland

    I’ve got one of the free systems and i use timer switches for my washing machine, dishwasher, tumble drier so that they come on during the day – it’s a matter of managing your usage, it’s not difficult. Also, what’s all this about Isis crawling all over your roof to maintain them? I didn’t have my free system from Isis but from A Shade Greener I’ve not had anyone crawling on my roof since May when they were fitted, not heard a peep from them – no need, everythings working fine. They take very little maintenance, perhaps you should have read up a bit about them before you wrote this article. Also, as regards what they look like, I reckon that anyone thinking about what they look like ought to ask those poor people in pakistan if they think panels look ‘pretty’ or not – global warming is a serious issue and we should be doing everything we possibly can to reduce our carbon footprint.

  • Alberto

    How selfish. Looking only at the money aspect. Never heard there is a planet around us?

  • EnergyEfficiencyAdvisorYorkshireMidlands

    I know hundreds of clients, and I’m sure there are many hundreds if not thousands more, who would readily install solar PV panels if they could afford them and benefit from the full FIT income. Perhaps journo’s in London have £10k knocking around in their desk drawer or in the teapot to go out and install their own panels, but the majority of homes in South Yorkshire barely have £100 spare.

  • Jimmy Jones

    Excellent ideas. At the end of the day you should just really take the step and get some more information. people worry too much about getting the best deal and then they never get solar installed. I’m just happy to be doing my bit from the environment and I did so with some great solar panels from http://www.quotepros.co.uk/quote/Solar-Panels_312

  • rubydog

    I have just had a survey done for free solar panels by a shade greener and i am trying to find out is it really worth it to have these panels. I understand it will be only daylight hours that i will make savings and wonder is it worth going ahead with this if i am offered the panels. can others advise please

  • Mr. Antony Newton

    Dear Ms. Ruth Jackson,
    Your comments on ISIS solar panel issues are well taken.
    However, a simple modification and add on with the ‘ISIS’ system, a good battery and ‘Newtons Computers’ solar lights,
    any customer of ‘ISIS’ should be able to have lights at night with out tapping into the grid supply.
    I have successfully installed Solar Lights in many places.
    May be you should encourage ‘ISIS’ to include this with their installation package.
    If information about the lights are required, please e-mail and we will gladly oblige.
    Keep up your good work.
    Tony Newton

  • jon sarge

    Hi all i’m very interested in these solar panels at our home we have very high expence with electricity and to be honest i give up with high prices now we have all the insulation and every energy save light bulb but to be honest do these realy work ? very interested with tony newton and the solar lights could you please tony email me info on this and does anyone know the best company to go with i think its a great idea .

  • z.lyall

    I would like to have solar panels installed but my roof is facing wrong way. So I was wondering if it would be possible to have them installed on my pergola which is about 20′ away from my house and its size is approx. 20’x13′ and is facing south and has about 30 degrees angle?

  • Janel

    I looked on this page hoping to find any references to SILIKEN solar panels. I am told that they are reccomended in Germany byPhoton Magazine but I am not finding any references . If any one has these panels please advise – are they good?

  • Stuart

    Anybody thinking of installing Solar Panels now should “Hold Off” as they are already obsolete for “domestic” situations.Like Computers when purchased, something better is in the pipe-line.In 2-3 years Solar Glass will be readily available at less cost,more efficient and without the problems caused by installing heavy panels on old roofs.Any body who disputes this just type in “Solar Glass” on a search engine and all will be revealed.Watch this space.

  • Little Bird

    We have ‘free’ solar panels installed for about a month. The prediction was that we would save 30-40% on our electricity bill, and this looks a reasonable forecast. We have been on holiday for 11 of the days and our meter now reads 80 units less than on the day of installation. Yes, when you don’t use some/all the electricity generated your meter goes backwards!!

  • sheppo

    Soooo confused. I like the sound of solar glass,so i think i may hold out for a couple of years. Thanks Stuart, will read up on solar glass now

  • KfromDerby

    I have been offered 16 panels by Isis due to the size of my property – 3.8/3.9 kw system. I am no expert in this area and would appreciate your views before I sign on the dotted line.

    Reading the Lease Agreement, I found this to be very oneroous which offers very little flexibility to the customer, where as ISIS have the option to cancel the agreement if the system is “uneconomically viable”. Termination costs are also extortionate. I am very keen to have to Solar Panels mainly for the costs benefits but there are no details of how much saving I am likely to make. Can anyone who has the free system installed share their experience!

  • r carr

    if your thinking of installing solar panels i would think about doing soon.
    As all the experts agree nucular fusion power plants will start to come on line in 30 years.

  • C Moore

    After spending time looking at the pros for having the free panels fitted, we decided it would be good for us as we are in nearly all day and so use daytime electricity, also it is good for the environment.
    Since making the decision we have hit a block with our mortgage company. We have tried four different installers now and all of them have hit a block with getting permission from Northern Rock, Nram as it is now.
    We have tried to get an answer as to why only Nram are causing problems but they won’t tell us anything, all we know is that all Nram customers will have the same problem and will not be allowed the panels.
    We find this absolutely ridiculous since it is a government incentive to reduce the carbon footprint by giving the feed in tariff hense allowing for the free install. Nram was set up by the government to manage mortgages after nationalisation and yet they seem to be opposing each other.

  • Mick Freer

    I support Ruth Jackson’s report. A 25 year legal agreement is a huge undertaking. As a technologist I would answer the point that some people believe that no moving parts mean no problems/maintenance. The panels will deteriorate and require changing. The ugliness of the panels and the fact that a new generation of better, lighter and less ugly panels will be available within 5 years is important to consider. I would also be concerned as to whether or not the company’s will be in business for 25 years.

  • patricia

    i have been trying to find out as anyone as a houseowner , made enquireies on insurance , if they need the roof repaired, or storm damage etc .

  • Gary

    My concern is, if i chose to sell my house before the 25 year threshold, what happens if the new buyer decides they want the house and not the solar panels! Will this be a deal breaker? Or will they be able to take the solar panels down?


    Well it is true that most people will not see much of a saving in electricity charges. Instead of that, think of saving gas!. Heat your water with an immersion heater for free. Use a storage radiator to store heat during the day for use at night. I have a controller which monitors the power from the panels and uses just that and non from the grid. The result was a significant reduction in the gas bill.

  • Chris (Essex Solar Panels)

    Most countries including UK, now have feed in tariff which means you can not just save cost – you can also gain profit for the next 25 years TAX FREE.