It’s not news to anyone that the cost of gas and electricity is skyrocketing. Although the vast majority of buildings in Fairfield were built (or redeveloped) in the last 20 years to modern specifications and are – by national standards – relatively energy efficient, there is always more that can be done. One solution that has been gaining in popularity recently is solar power. We approached an early adopter to see what insights they could offer to anyone else thinking of taking the plunge.

How long have you had your solar panels?

We’ve had them for twelve years now. At the time we installed our panels they were somewhat of a novelty.

And also quite expensive, compared to now?

Yes, I think so. However, we were lucky to be one of the very last people to benefit from the enhanced ‘feed in tariff’ (FIT) scheme, which was designed by the government to promote the uptake of renewable and low-carbon electricity generation at a time when it was still a big investment.

So you were paid for the energy you generated but didn’t use, is that right?

We still are! The FIT payments gradually reduced for new installations and the scheme finally ended in 2019 as a result of the technology maturing to the point where it became much cheaper and solar PV became a financially viable option without subsidies. But for those of us who signed up to a scheme, it continues to run for 25 years – so 14 more years in our case.

That sounds like quite a bonus! Although I suppose it would be even better to store the energy for later.

The amount we are paid for our electricity is lower than the amount we pay when we buy it from the grid, so it’s better to use it ourselves, but unfortunately we don’t have a battery – other than our electric car, which we do leave plugged in as much as we can when the sun’s shining! We also use excess electricity to heat the water in our immersion tank, saving on gas. A battery wasn’t a viable option when we bought our panels, and adding one to an existing solar PV system incurs 20% VAT. But batteries installed at the same time as solar panels are VAT-free until 2027, so it would be well worth considering if you are looking into installing solar panels now…

Have you had any problems with them?

None at all. Since installing our panels and the associated inversion unit, they have been trouble-free and are fulfilling their promise of providing virtually free electricity during the summer and reducing the amount of power we require from the grid in the winter.

How efficient are they in wintertime compared to summer?

Solar panels are most efficient when the sun’s rays strike them as near to direct as possible, which is why they are ideally placed on sloping south-facing roofs, or tilted at a similar angle when placed on the ground. The exact aspect and slope of your roof makes a difference to how efficient they will be. Obviously they work best in summer, when the sun is high, bright and often uninterrupted by cloud. In the winter months, the sun is lower in the sky, which means the rays don’t strike the panels at the same angle, but also the quality of the rays is different… they are more affected by the damp and pollution in the atmosphere – which makes the panels much less productive. Our panels are twice as effective in summer compared to winter. The amount of time the panels are exposed to the high sun is also critical; they have much more exposure during the long days of summer compared to the short days of winter.

What about maintenance?

Our panels need no servicing nor cleaning – the rain washes off any dust and the slippery, shiny surface seems to prevent any bird droppings, etc building up on them – so there’s no ongoing cost at all.

Were there any other expenses besides the panels and installation? Did you need planning permission, for example?

At the time we installed our panels, they were allowed under permitted development rights. But since large parts of Fairfield no longer have permitted development rights, most residents would need planning permission to install solar panels now. Scaffolding was needed to do the job, too, which is another expense you have to consider. That’s something you might be able to save on if you signed up together with a neighbour, though!

The small print

According to Central Bedfordshire Council’s website, obtaining planning permission for solar panels should not be an issue, providing: The solar PV or solar thermal equipment would not protrude more than 0.2 meters beyond the plane of the wall or the roof slope when measured from the perpendicular with the external surface of the wall or roof slope [and] the highest part of the solar PV or solar thermal equipment would not extend beyond the highest part of the roof (excluding any chimney). The current cost of applying for planning permission is £206.

Would you like to share your tips for cutting fuel bills? We’d like to hear from anyone in Fairfield who has made a deliberate change to increase the energy-efficiency of their home or decrease their consumption of fossil fuels. Whether you’ve gone big and replaced your gas boiler, changed your driving habits, topped up your insulation and draughtproofing, turned the thermostat down, or are just being more careful about turning off lights and putting lids on pans, be a part of the conversation – and let your neighbours benefit from your knowledge and experience. Write to