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19 Jun 2008

What is the Payback on Your New Solar Panels, and Should You Care?

Here’s just a quick and not really fully-formed thought for a Thursday morning. I have finally, as part of the Transition Town Totnes Solar Hot Water Challenge‘, signed up to get solar panels put on our roof. Took a while, but I am going for flat bed panels rather than evacuated tubes (to see why read this). The plan is to get them up while there is still some summer sun to take advantage of. The question I find myself asked though when I tell people about it is “but what is the payback on them?” Now I have to say honestly that I have no idea, I haven’t sat down and worked it out, but what intrigues me is that nature of that question.

It is not a question we ask when someone buys a new TV, a car, an i-pod, mobile phone, a swimming pool, a boat, a sofa, new carpets, a DVD player, a jacuzzi, a fitted kitchen, a new cooker, a motorbike, timber decking for the garden, a new conservatory, a caravan, a new fridge, a holiday, a computer, a printer, a double bass, a new chest of drawers or a painting.

Somehow all these things it is OK to buy because we want them, we think they will make us happier, or because we feel we need them. When it comes to solar panels those criteria no longer apply. Odd that. I am buying them because they will increase the resilience of my family, they will reduce our footprint, make us less oil vulnerable, but ultimately it is actually because I want them, in exactly the same way that people want the things on the list above.

I have no idea of the payback (although I guess I am assuming that there will be one), I suppose for me I see them as being essential, whereas most of the other things on the list aren’t. Will rising oil prices move people in the same direction, or will such things become seen more and more as an unaffordable luxury? I suppose it depends to what extent people want them, and what we can do to help generate that….

Categories: Energy, Food, Resilience

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22 Comments

[...] dontwannahearit.com wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt Here’s just a quick and not really fully-formed thought for a Thursday morning. I have finally, as part of the Transition Town Totnes Solar Hot Water Challenge‘, signed up to get solar panels put on our roof. Took a while, but I am going for flat bed panels rather than evacuated tubes (to see why read this). The plan is to get them up while there is still some summer sun to take advantage of. The question I find myself asked though when I tell people about it is “but what is the payback on th [...]

Nadia Hillman
19 Jun 9:33am

Dare I say it, but if Nike were to start investing in solar and the accompanying technology a panel with the dynamic ‘swoosh’ (or whatever the thing is called)emblazoned across it, should bring a few more people onboard. Both here and abroad.
Otherwise develop a solar panel/chocolate fondue hybrid which serves all the usual purposes of a panel (whilst for added convenience and luxury) simultaneously pumping a steady stream of delicious ‘sun-smoothed’ chocolate into your home.

Now, how to grow those cocoa beans in Bristol……?

The article really flags-up some frightening ironies prevelant in today’s consumer culture doesnt it?

Thank you and good luck with your new panels, you fortunate things you!

Jason Cole
19 Jun 9:35am

I think the issue people have with them is that it’s a pretty big capital outlay and the panels don’t do the job as well as a gas boiler.

When I’m asked the question I point out that Gas prices are likely to increase five-fold over the next 5 years, so any payback period is going to be shortened accordingly.

Jason Cole
19 Jun 9:53am

Another thought – do people worry about the payback period of double-glazing – or is that a comfort thing?

So Rob, have you coupled your Solar WH to your woodburner?

Steve Atkins
19 Jun 9:57am

We have oil central heating & hot water.
Before grasping the peak oil concept we decided it was a good idea to renew the ancient rusting oil tank with a plastic one.

The old steel tank was sited right next to the house, under a window, and the top of the tank was blistered by the flue outlet.
Fortunately the tank never caught on fire despite breaking every Oftec regulation. Phew!

So we fitted a new safe oil tank.
Now, unfortunately it costs a whole lotta money to fill it up and has been sat on it’s concrete pad temporarily redundant/ virtually empty since spring.
I’m guessing we’ll be filling the thing up to the brim before winter.

Meanwhile we’re looking at upgrading the house insulation and thinking about a solar water panel.

In the future, I hope our expensive oil tank may be converted into a posh water butt.

x steve

Greenpa
19 Jun 2:04pm

It can be useful to have answers ready for the economically trained scoffers you will meet. Otherwise, the onlookers to the conversation will frequently come away with the impression that you don’t know what you’re doing.

In 1993, I started construction on an earth sheltered, concrete and glass, solar heated, solar powered greenhouse. A business, not a toy.

EVERYBODY on the planet kind of smirked at my silliness. “You’ll never recoup the cost. You should just put up a plastic hoop house- why do you think that’s what all the big greenhouses do? They know their business.”

Today, many of those greenhouses are bankrupt; either out of business, for sale, or vanishing soon. Because of the outrageous energy wastefulness of a hoop house, which must be either heated, or cooled, 80% of the time (approximately). Energy costs are KILLING those businesses, and they have very few options for change. The professional greenhouse magazines are currently full of “how to grow poinsettias in a cooler greenhouse” kinds of articles- but they’re scraping pennies.

My greenhouse has no- as in ZERO- monthly energy bills; none for heat, none for power. It’s immensely more efficient; very well insulated, does not tend to overheat, etc, etc. Water is pumped with 24VDC pumps; which are much more efficient than AC pumps; and often directly from the solar panels; with no battery storage losses. I do have a diesel backup generator, for emergencies in very long cloudy spells; haven’t run it in 5 months.

Virtually all my energy costs were in the cost of construction. In the mortgage; which is economically the most beneficial. And now I own my energy. When I succeeded in getting my bigtime investor friend to see that- he shut right up. And got a fascinated gleam in his acquisitive eye.

Traditional accounting of “cost” and payback – are just senseless in current circumstances. Not sure how it works in the UK, but here in the US “improvements” to your home or business frequently have various kinds of tax advantages. The money you pay for fuel- is just gone. And you’re going to have to find more money for next month.

As a result of my folly, my greenhouse business is in no danger, and I’m not having to raise my prices; good competition. I really don’t see how many of my competitors are going to survive.

Jason Cole
19 Jun 2:45pm

Another thought I’ve had on this is that Solar HW (and even PV to some extent) are often marketed as “something to save you money”.

If the premise of installing anything is to save money, then the question “What’s the paypack period” is going to be an inevitable consequence.

I seem to recall that when Solar HW was marketed “because gas is running out and getting expensive” there was a lot of hot air in the media about scaremongering.

citrus
19 Jun 4:42pm

i would absolutely love to have solar water panels on my roof but am in rented accomodation so it seems impractical and possibly impossible (!). both my partner and i however are trying to convince our respective parents to invest in them. both parents have their own homes and are retired or soon-to-be. they are both aware of rising energy prices in relation to their much smaller available income after retirement. still the question pops up: what is the payback time?

for me this is also a completely moot point. in a world where energy prices are certain to rise faster than income, even if you’re not retiring, it makes sense to prepare now and make changes to your house that will mean your levels of disposable income wil stay higher for years to come. the panels might recoup their cost in 3 years or it might be 20, but your bills will be lower that whole time.

my parents did not ask this question of their new bathroom (very water-saving and with special low-energy lights), new kitchen, new car (smaller engine to save fuel costs) or any of the other things they have bought since retiring. that’s because they felt they deserved them – but for some reason solar hot water still doesn’t fall into this bracket for them!

i would rather nick a bit off my savings and have more money to spend day to day…

Greenpa
19 Jun 7:13pm

One other reason to “do it now”- have you noticed that all of our governments have been getting a little worse, and a little worse, and a little worse- about maintaining national power supplies and distribution grids? Blackouts are increasingly likely; many think; and the chance that the governments are going to get better at it are very slim.

ROG
20 Jun 2:53am

Interesting post. I went through this kind of thinking for a while before I bit the bullet. I now have an off-peak electric water heating bill of between 52 and 58 Australian cents (1 pound) per quarter. People don’t believe this when I tell them. The determining factor, though, is that the product warranty effectively ensures a ten year guarantee on my water heating bill. Almost no other form of water heating has such a guarantee. To stick with gas/electric/oil/solid fuel is to settle for no guarantee and potentially spiralling costs. If people insist on doing payback calculations they should perhaps do so under a series of fuel cost scenarios over the expected life of the proposed heating source. But then again, it’s reasonable to consider solar as cheap irrespective of competitors. Isn’t it amazing that we can get years of hot water from the sun for so little cash outlay?

Tracey Todhunter
20 Jun 11:33am

All I would say is choose your panels and their position very carefully.In my village we have several houses and bungalows with solar thermal panels installed by 3 different companies. Some homes have had hot water since February, others report they didn’t get anything vaguely warm until May. We’re looking at installing a retrofit solasyphon, if anyone has experience of those I’d be grateful for (private) feedback on their efficiency – don’t want to get into a debate about individual companies on Rob’s blog.
Thanks

Dave Moreman
20 Jun 12:52pm

Excellent point – why do we need to justify our purchases in terms of payback? Why not just say – “I’m doing this because I think it is the right thing to do”. This is the argument the big companies use to justify their adoption of ethical or sustainable practices. Now IS the time to do “the right thing”.

Greenpa
20 Jun 1:59pm

Tracy Todhunter’s point is excellent- the amount of plain incompetence floating around out there is amazing. I’ve seen solar installations so badly sited that it really seems to me the person putting them in WANTED them to be functional failures.

Tracey Todhunter
21 Jun 7:34am

Sorry – think I’ve been misunderstood – was not saying anyone is incompetent – just that the same system isn’t always suitable all situations and depends on individual circumstances. In fact the installers I’ve met have been very competent and informative, including one who told us quite honestly that the system he installs would not be suitable for our bungalow roof and to try one of his competitors. Cheshire is holding a renewable technologies fair next month, where people can go and see a variety of systems and meet installers as well as getting independent advice. This is the kind of thing that will improve uptake and inform the public about how the technology is moving forward. The question of payback is something I’m hearing less of – solar panels are the new designer “must have accessory” – at least that seems to be the case in Cheshire!

RS
23 Jun 2:21pm

In some circles they do seem to be designer acessories now. In some instances this may explain why they are placed in inappropriate locations, like north facing, so the neighbours can see them. The lady in question reportedly later installed one on the south side as well, rather than relocate the visible one.

Not sure if the tale is an urban myth or real but it would not surprise me.

Kathy Marsh
25 Jun 10:26pm

Its just over a year since we spent nearly €4000 euro putting in a 4 sq m vaccuum tube system. Immediately before the lowest June sunlight in history. We hadn’t done fine calculations on payback because it was pretty obvious that oil prices were going to go through the roof before long. Our central heating runs off a Stanley range which burns kerosene and we have wood burning stoves in two rooms – wood is from our own land. House is old (poured concrete – lethal U values) but we’ve added a lot of insulation and double glazing. Washing machine and dishwasher plumbed for hot and cold feed, power showers do not have individual electric heating. Two young adult shower crazy sons. And a jacuzzi. While all around are rising our electricity bills have fallen by €100 a month. And what we really hadn’t factored in was the impact of pre-heating the water for the central heating. Overwinter oil went from 1500 litres to 700 litres. Water in (huge and heavily insulated) cylinder is never below 27C. You can work the sums out for yourselves.
The installer did come back several times to tweak the system for optimumm efficiency and is due back again this week to improve stratification.

Andy Hawk
26 Jun 8:56am

My 14 year old daughter is being taught – and having gcse questions on just this subject. She is taught that solar panels do not pay which i thought incredible and at least using way out of date energy prices to justify this awful use of school time. So as she solar hoovered then solar ironed and solar showered i asked her what the energy cost of her activities were and she correctly answered NONE.
Big energy is in our schools teaching the kids that solar does not work when it really does.

Tim Sheehan
29 Jun 5:46am

So what’s the pay back time?

When I buy a new TV, a car, an i-pod, mobile phone, a swimming pool, a boat, a sofa, new carpets, a DVD player, a jacuzzi, a fitted kitchen, a new cooker, a motorbike, timber decking for the garden, a new conservatory, a caravan, a new fridge, a holiday, a computer, a printer, a double bass, a new chest of drawers or a painting.
I usually ask myself how long will it last and is this the most efficient product to purchase.

Candy
2 Jul 12:09pm

You should just tell him you bought your shiny new Solar Hot Water “Because I’m worth it” !

[...] What is the Payback on Your New Solar Panels, and Should You Care? [...]

Cathy
7 Jul 10:03am

Fascinating article you attached to this blog, Rob. Can you tell me where it was first published?

Rob
7 Jul 10:36am

It was published originally in Sustainability, Ireland’s new sustainability magazine…
http://www.sustainability.ie/magazine.html
Very good and long overdue…
Thanks, Rob