Free Solar PV: What's the Cost?

I had the great pleasure in receiving an unsolicited call from a UK company marketing their 'free solar panel' deal. Since I'm interested in solar PV I let the salesperson deliver their pitch, and then asked a number of questions. What follows is an insight into what these deals are really about.

The company offers "free solar pv". It covers the material costs and costs of installation, maintenance and insurance. To make their money they get to keep the feed-in tariff (FiT) paid for every kWh (unit) of electricity the panels generate.

We (the homeowner) benefit with lower bills - falling by around a half, I was told.

What if I want to sell our house? That's okay, as the agreement is tied to the house. I was also informed that our property value should increase by up to 9%, and sell around 30% faster. Quite where these numbers and claims come from, I don't know. As far as the agreement is concerned, I don't see how it can be tied to the house; is it written into the deeds?

At the moment you may be thinking that the scheme sounds pretty good. Well... one of the selling points was that "after 25 years, ownership of the solar panels would transfer to the homeowner". The salesperson didn't know how they'd perform after 25 years, and rightly refused to suggest a number. However, the truth is that solar panels rapidly lose efficiency after 25 years - and they're certainly not covered by a manufacturer's warranty at that age. What the home-owner ends up with is a roof-load of ageing panels that are going to be a serious problem to dispose of in several years' time. The solar panel company has made a load of cash from you for the last 25 years, and leaves the clean-up operation in your hands. Also bear in mind that the FiT legislation is on a 25-year term too, so there may not actually be any generation payments on offer when the panels become yours!

A strange aspect of the deal was that the agreement would actually be with one of the "big six" energy suppliers (and the sales-person didn't know which one). The sales-person then described their solar panel company as just a marketing company to get people signed up. They're really just a marketeer middle-man branded as a solar pv installer, so what's the point in using them? If the "big six" company in question is providing the actual service, then why not just go direct to them?

In summary, these schemes seem like a "no-brainer", offering much lower electricity bills for no outlay. In practice, though, I would be immensely wary of being lumbered with decommissioning costs without having received the benefit of the government's feed-in tariff. If you are interested in solar, I would recommend that you only proceed if you can afford to pay for the panels yourself.


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