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Free solar panels: is it too good to be true?

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 11 August 2010 at 8:54 am

Solar PV panels worth £10-12,000, installed on your roof, free of charge - it sounds too good to be true, but is it really?

The 'rent a roof' model, as it is known, is proving attractive to installers and investors. A Shade Greener, Homesun and Isis Solar are just three of companies offering the service, and more will follow. So it's good for business. But is it a good deal for the consumer too?

First let's look at how it works. The company looks for homeowners with a south facing roof that is strong enough to install solar PV panels. They install a system free of charge, and agree to maintain it for 25 years. In return you sign a contract agreeing that they should receive the feed-in tariff income on all the electricity that installation generates for the full 25 years.

An average household solar PV installation is around 2kWp. It generates an income of around £800 from the feed-in tariff which, under a rent a roof scheme, will be assigned to the installation company. You will just benefit from a reduced electricity bill as a result of using some of the free solar electricity generated.

This saving may be up to £100 a year (on this size installation). The rule of thumb says that most people use half of the electricity they generate in the home, and half is exported to the grid. However, how much you actually benefit will depend on how much electricity you use during the day when the sun is shining. If all members of the household are out at work or school all day, then you'll probably save less that that.

If you've got the capital to invest, and you want solar panels, it makes more sense to install the solar panels yourself and benefit from the feed-in tariff. Even if you have to take out a loan for the up front cost, Consumer Focus reckons it's a better financial deal than renting your roof.

The government is due to introduce the Green Deal soon which will provide up to £6,500 finance for increasing home energy efficiency. The money will be paid back over a long period out of the savings in energy bills. It's not clear yet whether solar panels and other microgeneration technologies will be included in the scheme, but if so the green deal will also be a better way of financing solar PV installations than renting your roof out.

So, if you don't have capital, and don't want to, or can't afford to, take out a loan, is it a good deal? On the face of it, it could save up to £2,500 in electricity bills over 25 years (at today's prices - although it's likely to be more as energy prices rise). But I'd want to know more about all sorts of things before I went ahead. (I will be researching these over the coming weeks, so do keep an eye on the blog for updates). Here are some of my questions:

How much will I really save, based on actual electricity usage, and how much I'm at home during the day?

What happens if the panels break or stop generating? 

Who is liable if anything goes wrong?

Will it impact my ability to sell the house? What happens if a buyer wants to remove the panels?

What, if anything, will I have to pay for?

Can I buy back the assigned feed-in tariff? 

Who owns the kit? Is it insured? And if so, by who? 

Who owns the panels at the end of the 25 year deal? 

What happens if the company which installed the solar panels goes bust before the 25 years are up?

These are just a few of the questions I'd want to ask before going ahead with a deal. I'm sure you can think of more - please add them in the comments section below, and tell us what you think of the scheme. Is there such a thing as free electricity? Are you tempted by the idea? 

Photo by mjmonty

More information:

Solar PV Guide

Find a Solar PV installer


If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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10 comments - read them below or add one

Cathy Debenham

Cathy DebenhamComment left on: 29 March 2011 at 8:12 am

Hi Kodlak13

You might be being a bit harsh: I just learned recently that the government's purpose for the feed-in tariff is to increase the number of people involved in the energy debate, by getting them to engage first hand with energy. Rent a roof schemes do have this effect, especially for households who are at home during the day, or for small businesses, because they see the impact on their electricity bills, and can experiment with timing electricity-intensive activities when the sun is shining and the panels are generating.

My concern is that it's sold transparently, so that people are given an accurate picture of what the reduction in their bills might be based on their usage, rather than a generic figure that doesn't reflect their life.

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Jayhawk International Ltd

Jayhawk International LtdComment left on: 27 August 2010 at 6:31 pm

Commenting on Brian’s points, he is also correct about where PV panels are coming from where cheap labour is used, more important to me is the amount of Toxic Chemicals and the processes used that if not disposed of correctly as was discovered in China, where a big manufacture was dumping this waste into an already polluted lake near a village School which after 9 months poisoned the whole area.


This information I read was part of an undercover investigation done by a German company covering the 6 major players, 4 Chinese and 2 American. Given the €43 billion PV tariffs are costing the German government a year, the new proposed policy being discussed is that all exports of PV panels into Germany must show that all Toxic chemicals and processes in PV production must be made transparent and comply to the laws of the land.

Regarding these companies offering FREE PV systems to gain the majority of the FIT tariff, it would be better for the home owner to increase the mortgage or take out a personal loan, so you own it for the life of the system.


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Jayhawk International Ltd

Jayhawk International LtdComment left on: 27 August 2010 at 6:21 pm

Regarding the comment by TTS, the future I believe after 18 years in solar system designs covering solar hot water and heating which I installed in my house 8 years ago, is solar lighting with battery storage now that the latest in LED technology is available.


Instead of the PV panels being expensive, the new 3 watt lamps I now sell at £20.00 each with 30,000 hrs of life will now deliver solar lighting at DC 12 volts.


No inverter of grid tie needed, just the installation of 600 Ah of battery storage for 65 lamps x 3 watt and a few 200 watt panels


The latest battery technology as being installed in electric cars could be leased in such a package, if the cost was to much for the buyer.


My calculation from the components I buy for an Indian company I supply 6 lamp solar PV systems too for $200.00 could be supplied and installed into a UK home for around £2,500 including the deep cycle Gel batteries


We as home owners and consumers where money in the bank is worthless regarding any return when inflation and tax is included, is now the best time to transfer that money into energy saving technologies like solar lighting and back up to the solar thermal pumps and pump for gas boiler.


Around 60% of a home energy is used for heating, with 20% for hot water all the year round, the rest is electricity if you have a gas boiler



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Jayhawk International Ltd

Jayhawk International LtdComment left on: 27 August 2010 at 6:04 pm

In respect to Mikes comment, Solar PV generates electricity with an efficiency of 14-16% max less the 7% lost through transmission lines when not providing electricity to the house.


Solar Thermal hot water heating collectors are 60% efficient in flat plate types with evacuated tube heat pipe collectors at around 90% with no loss in transmission


If as expected we see power cuts due to the shutting down of old power stations and no new ones replacing them as yet, those who have spent £12,000-£16,000 on a PV installation will also have no power as all connections to the grid have to be shut down.


This means no electricity to power your gas boiler pump, unless like me you invest £250.00 in UPS inverter charger system.


Producing electricity from solar PV to heat water and provide heating is 100% nuts considering the panels are flat and during winter the peak hrs of sunlight is no more than 2-3 hrs max



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Mike Maybury

Mike MayburyComment left on: 25 August 2010 at 5:48 pm

I guess that the solar array will be sufficient to heat all/most of the water needed, heating during the day and available all night.

With a suitably large tank there would be sufficient hot water to supply radiators for space heating, surely. This should only require some alternative back-up during cold weather.

An alternative space heating system might be 'night-store' heaters, using cheap night electricity from the energy supplier, and free top up during the day, ensuring economical heat during the evening.

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ttsComment left on: 25 August 2010 at 2:37 pm

Since a large proportion of the energy used at night-time is for lighting, I wonder about the practicality of installing a 12v DC lighting circuit in the house and running this from batteries charged by a "free" solar system during the day.  I have no idea of the cost of doing something like this, or whether it would be viable financially.  Many houses include some 12v lighting installation already, but fed via (expensive) transformers.  I know the battery cost would be high, but would they then pay themselves off with free lighting?

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brianfauxComment left on: 25 August 2010 at 2:03 pm

Surely a FULL investigation should take into consideration the ethical problems if any:eg is the scheme underwritten by exploited third world labour? (Ans: maybe)

But one does not need an international investigation to show up some of the murkier aspects.

Who will gain? 

Those who live in the South and those with access to a reasonable slice of south facing roof. Deserving organisations (who still have to fit the above criteria) can gain without shelling out, but only by giving an even greater gain to the suppliers and installers of the technology.

Who will lose? Everyone else.

Like many get rich quick schemes which seem to be inclusive, the FIT only works if taken up by the few.

(NB the above is relevant mainly to solar.)

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bigal029Comment left on: 21 August 2010 at 7:47 pm

One further point. There are 2 types of panel: mono-layered and multi-layered. The latter are more expensive but degrade more slowly as they don't expand as much in the sun or flex in the wind and are heavier so are more stable.

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bigal029Comment left on: 21 August 2010 at 7:42 pm

Have just met with a rep for a major pv panel installer, with a view to buying the panels ourselves. They guarantee the installation (12 months)  & panels (20 years) plus £1000,000 public liability ins. Thus, the insurer, not the installer is liable if they go broke. It is expensive, around £16000 but the predicted benefits, even at the government's minimal tariff, are over twice that, and the company claims, as of course they would, that the actual returns will be even higher. One word of warning, which may have been sales hype. The inverters, necessary to change the DC into AC current, are in short supply and one should confirm that the installer has a supply of inverters to avoid being left with panels on the roof that can't be used.

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Barry Nutley

Barry Nutley from Viridis Energie ConsultantsComment left on: 12 August 2010 at 12:25 am

Some really good questions here Cathy.. I'd be interested to know the answers, when you have them??

Our views at Viridis, currently, are:

Yes, it's good deal for those who would like to install solar PV, but may not have the available finances. I believe that there is a "buy back" option, which would make sense for people to "buy" now (thus securing the upper FIT payments), and pay later?

Our, initial, investigations suggest that these companies will be looking at installing systems of nearer 4kwp (optimum size for upper FIT payments), on a near perfect roof? This, of course means that not everyone will be suitable? They do seem to offer the scheme for "non perfect" roofs, but there is a "small" payment? So not quite as attractive?

Whilst I totally agree that if you have the money "spare", then it makes more sense to finance an installation yourself. However, as independent renewable energy consultants, and if the answers to your questions are positive for the consumer, then (at this stage), I can't find anything drastically wrong with the scheme?

One thing we, perhaps, need to bear in mind, is that we need to reduce our carbon emissions??? Is this a way that we can do it for no outlay???? Is it the way to go???

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