We were early adopters of solar panels, so I was completely dismayed by Liz Truss’s recent announcement that she didn’t like them. It’s been over ten years since we had them installed and they are now very much part of our daily life. With the current horrendous rise in energy prices, it’s all the more important to remember that the panels need to work as efficiently as possible.
When our panels were first installed, one of our neighbours, an electrician, took a great interest. A week or so later, he came round with a kettle as a gift. We stood there looking a little puzzled, saying thank you, but we already had a kettle. He then explained why – something we’d probably not have thought of ourselves, but it was really obvious!
Our existing kettle still cost us money to use, even when the panels were working at full capacity. Every time we switched it on, we were using 3 kilowatts(kW), the total our panels can produce. Taking into account other appliances like the fridge/freezer, etc, once the kettle went on, electricity usage was more than the panels could produce.
Our neighbour explained that the kettle he’d bought us only used 1kW, well within the capacity of our 3kW setup. Yes, it takes a little longer to boil, but that simple tweak has been saving us tens – or even hundreds – of pounds over the years, and continues to do so.
It’s very useful that our smart meter shows the excess electricity our panels generate which is sent to the National Grid. Having had them for many years, we’re on a legacy “feed in tariff” which pays us for producing the electricity and lets us use what we generate. The negative reading doesn’t mean that our meter goes backwards (which was the case for some in the very early days!)
Smart meter…not a smart house
Happily, E.on has finally managed to read its own meter after we switched supplier last year, so we can be more accurate rather than just seeing how bright it is outside.
However, the smart meter only seems to like working in our kitchen, so there can still be a lot of guesswork involved. This can be very annoying in the autumn and spring months when, instead of putting on the gas central heating, we use our halogen heater to take off the chill. I keep running into the kitchen to check our electricity generation, making a draught each time by opening and closing the door!
We might have a smart meter, but we’re far from being a smart house.
The heater, which cost about £15, has settings using 400w, 800w or 1200w, all comfortably within our panels’ capability on a bright day.
Even on the brightest day, at breakfast time, we only generate around 1kW as the sun hasn’t reached its peak, so timing is everything. Firstly the kettle goes on. Only once it has boiled is it then time to switch the toaster on. The trick is not to use too many appliances at once. This quickly becomes part of your mindset.
Of course, in the winter, sunlight is scarcer and we have to become even more canny. The sun can still shine in the winter months, but much less. So when it does shine, on goes the washing machine, vacuum cleaner or iron etc. As you might imagine, we certainly would not want to take advantage of the supposed ‘Brexit benefit’ where vacuum cleaners could now be manufactured to use more energy! Anyone thinking that’s a benefit certainly doesn’t have to pay the electricity bill.
Solar panels for private use don’t seem to have changed much, although newer installations generally feature an app so you can monitor your usage on your phone. What has changed are prices which have decreased a little. However, our feed in tariff is long gone, so optimising the use of the power generated is even more vital for newer installations.
Some top tips for a sunny day:
- Don’t just sit there when it’s sunny! This is the best time to do the washing, vacuuming, ironing etc. Just make sure you’ve got an energy efficient/low wattage appliance, just like our 1kW kettle or 1.2kW halogen heater. Why use energy from the grid when you’re producing it from your roof?
- Putting the oven on has never been more expensive. If you’re retired or working from home and have an electric oven, why not use it at lunchtime rather than the evening? If you want a hot drink with your meal, switch the oven off for a few minutes while the kettle goes on. The oven will stay warm enough. And if you’re using the oven on a cold, but sunny day, remember to leave the door open afterwards to let the heat into the house. That tip goes for anyone using an oven!
- Charge your appliances during the day, certainly not at night. Don’t leave them plugged in when they don’t need charging, in many cases, you might still be using energy.
- If your solar panels are making enough electricity to boil a kettle, then why not use that water to wash dishes (or even yourself!) rather than from the tap – why use your gas boiler? Just be very careful with boiling water. For washing up, put the kettle on before you eat so it’s both had time to boil and cool down a little.
- Most importantly, think of staggering the usage of appliances, using them one at a time, so you don’t increase your electricity bill.
What else can be done?
These tips can only be used if you’re actually at home. A timer doesn’t always help as it can go cloudy. Of course, vagaries of the British weather mean that as soon as you put the washing machine on, you can guarantee the clouds will come over. That said, it’s light, rather than sunlight, so there might still be enough to power the appliance.
Undoubtedly the most annoying thing about our solar panel setup is that you can only use the energy when it’s sunny or light enough. It’s not always convenient to do the washing, vacuuming or ironing etc when it’s bright outside. And when it is sunny and bright, you don’t need the lights on!
So far, battery storage has remained stubbornly expensive and not always cost-effective. It can also take up quite a bit of space. But one day it will be our next step. Thankfully we’re on a fixed rate with our energy supplier until next year so I plan to revisit the subject next summer.
By then, the economics might well have changed drastically and our electricity usage will no longer be controlled by when the sun comes out!