Are Free Solar Panels a Good Deal?

Written by Karen Bryan

We decided to investigate getting free solar panels for our home. My husband responded to an advert in the local paper for free solar panels.

With the free solar panels deal, the householder gets the panels fitted, insured and maintained free of charge. The householder can then use any electricity generated by the solar panels free of charge. Any excess electricity generated by the solar panels is fed into the national grid. The free solar panel provider is paid for this excess electricity through the ‘Feed in Tariff’ (FIT). Solar panels cost an average of £5,000 to buy and install, with an average predicted lifespan of 25 years. With free solar panels, the typical contract is for 20 years.

solar panels on roof

I’d read that the average saving in electricity bills from free solar panels was around £120 per year. As we may sell our home soon, my husband wondered if getting some free electricity might be attractive to prospective buyers.

I wasn’t sure if our roof was suitable for solar panels. For optimal performance, your roof should face within 45 degrees of south. I reckoned that our roof might scrape into this as it faces south-west. Ideally the roof shouldn’t have any shadow, we get some shadow on our roof in the late afternoon from the Royal Border Bridge.

We prepared a list of questions for the sales rep, e.g. in case the panels needed to be removed to carry out roof repairs who would pay for their removal and refitting, what would happen if a future buyer of the property didn’t want to keep the panels and, if the fitting of the panels would require drilling into roof.

On the day of the appointment, I was amazed when the rep said that she would carry out a desk top survey to ascertain if our roof was suitable within the next few days and get back to us. Surely it would make more sense to do that survey before arranging an appointment to discuss fitting free solar panels?

She said that if our property were eligible for the free solar panels, the roof would need to be inspected to check that it wouldn’t need any repairs over the next 20 years. I wondered if it were possible to judge that.

She answered all our questions, suggesting a 3KW system.

The rep said she’d call in the next few days to tell us if our roof was eligible. She left us with some literature, including a FAQs section. Some of the answers which she gave to our questions didn’t match the answers given in the written FAQs. For example, that we’d have to pay an unspecified fee if the panels needed to be removed and re-fitted to allow for roof repairs (for a reason not related to the solar panels being there), and if a future buyer wanted the panels to be removed.

I was doubtful of the claims in the FAQs that the installation of free solar panels could cut our electricity bills by up to half, and increase the value of our home by between £10,000 and £20.000.

After the rep’s visit, I used the Energy Savings Trust’s online solar energy calculator. As I thought, our house was borderline south-west facing. I moved the slider to some shade on the roof. Based on a 3KW system, with a monthly electricity bill of £40, ie an annual bill of £480, our estimated annual saving on electricity was £66. That’s around a 14% saving, nowhere near the up to 50% saving mentioned in the FAQs. The supplier’s estimated FIT revenue was £218.

Three weeks after her visit, I was surprised to receive a phone call from the sales rep saving that our home was suitable for the installation of 14 solar panels.  She didn’t say how many KWs that system would be. But using the figure of a 3KW system given during her visit, with an annual income of £218 through FIT for the installer, the 20 year contract wouldn’t even cover the estimated £5,000 cost of installing the free solar panels. It didn’t seem to me that the solar panel installer had made a wise business decision.

From our perspective, it didn’t appear that free solar panels were a good deal. To save £66 a year on our electricity bills, we’d need to sign a 20 year contract. When we factored in possible issues and costs associated with panel removal involving roof repairs and a future buyer of the property possibly not wanting the solar panels, we decided that we won’t be installing free solar panels.