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Why are we so obsessed with the payback for Solar PV?

Posted by Helena Ripley on 13 October 2015 at 9:45 am

When we look at renewable electricity or heat generation the first consideration always seems to be the length of time that it will take for the technology to pay for itself. It makes sense: if you’re investing several thousand pounds you want to know that it will be worth it. But is it right to judge the worth solely in terms of payback?

When we buy a car, a boiler or new windows we don’t sit down and work out how they will pay for themselves. A car decreases in value from the moment you buy it so there’s no chance of payback, it’s a matter of convenience and necessity. A new boiler also won’t necessarily pay for itself- replacing an inefficient boiler will lower your bills but you will still have the ongoing expense of the gas. Double glazed windows which help to make your home draught proof, warmer and quieter could take 80 years to pay for themselves! For most things we buy we think about the benefits that they will give us rather than whether they can pay for themselves. So why do we still have to justify the cost of renewable technology in terms of payback?

And why do we assume that anyone who buys solar panels does so to save money? There is so much focus in the renewables industry on the potential savings that could be achieved. But surely many people who invest in renewable technology are more interested in the environmental aspect. They want to generate their own renewable heat or electricity in order to reduce their carbon emissions. In which case installing renewable technology will make a big difference, especially if you put in a little extra effort to make the best use of it. Figures from the Energy Saving Trust show that even in central Scotland a 4 kWp solar PV array can offset over 1,500 kg of CO2 per year. So, solar PV is definitely a good way to reduce your carbon footprint. Other benefits include greater independence from the grid and from fossil fuels, and the knowledge that you’re investing in everyone’s future.

As the government is looking to make cuts and consulting on Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) it may be that future adopters will need to find other reasons for adopting solar PV. So, now is the time to think about the ethical reasons for making the most of solar power and other renewables. We can’t ignore the financial aspect, but with renewable technologies costing far less than when they first came on the domestic market, money need not be the central concern. A survey by Which? found that in 2011 people were paying on average £11,329 for a 3.6 – 4kWp system, but that same size of system costs just £6,750 in 2015. And while solar panels are decreasing in cost, the price of, predominantly, fossil fuel powered electricity is rising.

With financial costs falling and the environmental costs of inaction becoming ever more apparent, now may be the time to broaden our thinking beyond payback and to start focussing on the other benefits. Installing renewables still isn’t cheap and the proposed reduction in FiTs will make people think carefully before committing to solar PV, but if you have the space and money, going renewable is still well worth it, in every sense.


Photo credit: SolarPlus Yorkshire

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1 comments - read them below or add one


richmcComment left on: 25 October 2015 at 9:48 am

I think your premise is entirly wrong. The saving made and payback time when the consumer actually makes money from the panels are the main and in most cases only reason for buying them. The environmental benifits are of secondry intrest if they are of any interest at all to most consumers. We live in a world where minimising costs or maximising profits are of paramount importance. Offsetting CO2, most who have had panels fitted couldn't start to tell you what that means.

We yougen subscriber by our very nature are more aware of the environmental impact of fitting solar, but if a salesman had told me "you won'r save or make money from this large investment for fifty years" I'd be the first to show them the door.

Solar prices have come down true, but so have FIT and generation tarrrfis if the proposed cliff drop in payments goes ahead next year it will kill the solar industry, no one will be wowed by a £60/year payback and a 40% reduction in electricity bills for any amount of outlay.


Why do we assume anyone buying solar panels do so to save money, because it's a fact. And I think you'll find practically no one has the slightest interest in the environmental impact.

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