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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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New light on Cumbria’s future energy needs

It’s not the sunniest town in Cumbria. And Cumbria isn’t the sunniest part of the UK. And the UK isn’t the sunniest part of the world – or even Europe.

Solar panels photo
Workers from Sundog Energy install Cumbria's largest solar PV system on Mitchell's in Cockermouth

So why would you want to install solar panels on houses in Longtown on the border?

Or any other house in the county for that matter?

One reason is that the panels don’t need a crack in the clouds and sunbeams to dance their way into their system – they operate using daylight.

The second reason is that in the long run, they are likely to save you hundreds, if not thousands of pounds in heating bills and fuel costs.

One of Cumbria’s MPs says fitting solar panels on all new homes should be compulsory.

We have all sorts of building regulations he argues, why can’t this be one?

Carlisle MP John Stevenson believes fitting the panels would slash household energy bills, boost manufacturing and help the Government reach renewable-energy targets.

Some 113,880 homes were built in the UK last year.

Creating such a large market for solar panels, the MP argues, would bring production costs down and so make it more attractive for existing homeowners to install them too.

There has been a rapid growth in solar-panel installations since 2010 when the last government subsidised the price of panels and introduced feed-in tariffs to pay homeowners and businesses for generating green energy.

But the coalition government halved the tariffs for new installations from December, doubling the amount of time it takes to recoup the installation costs.

Further tariff cuts are planned.

Mr Stevenson says solar subsidies were introduced to create a market which has now been established.

He says the cuts in subsidies are offset by the reduction there has been in recent years in the cost of buying the panels.

The MP says this will reduce further as demand increases.

“People think the market is static and it is not, the cost of solar power has dropped with the incentives the government has provided and there is still an incentive there,” he says.

“If these were fitted to new houses there would be a market of 100,000 homes a year, people would innovate and there will come a time when the panels are built into the roofs of homes and not on top of them.”

Typically, it costs £10,000 to install solar panels and could take as much as 20 years under the new tariffs to recoup this.

Mr Stevenson’s scheme has come in for criticism from Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council.

He says: “Anything that improves the energy efficiency of buildings is a good thing but what the Carlisle MP is calling for is unworkable.

“To make solar panels compulsory would add about £10,000 to the build cost of new homes and make them even harder to sell.

“You would drive potential purchasers into buying older, less energy-efficient homes because that were cheaper.

“Technology in this area is changing all the time, you would be embedding today’s technology, which would be superseded in a few years’ time.”

He argues that the Government aim to make all new homes “zero carbon” by 2016 could be achieved without putting solar panels on every property.

Environmental developer Nigel Catterson agrees with the MP and reckons the panels should be widely installed. The 62-year-old is the leader of a consortium that has been green-lighted to redevelop the former armaments depot at Broughton Moor into a revolutionary eco-development.

The 1,050-acre Derwent Forest site will be transformed into a £40m project combining eco-housing, an organic farm, a festival site and a visitor centre where people can learn about sustainable living and care for the environment.

Mr Catterson says: “In principle, I can’t disagree with him [Mr Stevenson], anything that is going to make us more energy self-sufficient is worth it.

“I have had solar thermal panels on my house to provide hot water for 10 or 12 years and they have reduced my energy consumption by a tank of oil a year.

“When I had them fitted it seemed an extravagance and I thought it was something I would not see a return on, but given the price of oil now, it looks like a sensible investment and they have more than paid for themselves.

“The way power prices are going, something that might look marginal now, will look like an investment in the future.”

Despite the changes in subsidies, major investments in solar power continue across Cumbria.

Riverside Housing Association has fitted nine of its homes in Longtown with solar panels and plans to roll out the scheme to install them on all 140 homes in the town.

Mark Patchitt, director of regeneration at Riverside, says:“Solar panels are expensive and the payback time is lengthy so it is not feasible to install them on every new build.

“Where government subsidy can support solar panels on new build properties, we will utilise it to meet our energy efficient targets but there are often better energy solutions depending on location.”

In Carlisle, the city council has installed panels on The Sands Centre and the Civic Centre.

It is estimated the technology will cut £5,000 a year from the combined energy bills and save 26 tonnes of carbon.

Over 25 years, it is expected the scheme will bring savings of £266,000.

Council leader Mike Mitchelson says: “We have been looking to extend the scheme to other buildings such as Tullie House museum and community centres.

“It provides energy savings and it is part of our green agenda.

“The subsidy reductions by the Government have made solar power less appealing and there has to be a good business case for each investment.

“But solar installation does cushion the effect of any future fuel price rises.”

Most people who install solar power fit photovoltaic (PV) panels for generating electricity, rather than thermal panels which produce hot water.

And Martin Cotterell, founder and chairman of Sundog Energy in Penrith, finds them by far the most popular of the green energy measures his company offers.

“About 18 months ago, PV generated about 30 megawatts of the country’s electricity,” he says.

“Now that’s around 1,200 megawatts. What that shows is that it’s very quick and easy to install.”

He admits that the panels won’t work absolutely everywhere. “If a roof is shaded by a chimney or a tree then they won’t function.

“But almost everybody can find some shade-free area of roof. Not everybody has space for a ground-source heat pump or a windmill.

“PV panels can fit on the vast majority of houses – the places they don’t work are very few and far between – so builders have nothing to fear from them.”

They can also be a good long-term investment, he says, and not just through the savings on your electricity bills.

Even though government payments through the feed-in tariff are being cut, they still offer a good rate of return for householders.

The rate was 43.3 pence per kilowatt, but that was halved to 21p in December and is likely to be cut again, to around 14p, in July.

However Mr Cotterell argues: “The returns are still probably better than on other forms of investment.

“They’re better than an ISA and there are all the environmental benefits as well.”

Within the next four years environmental benefits in housing will be compulsory. By 2016, all new home have to be zero-carbon.

Eco Environments, which has a base in Carlisle, provides a range of renewable energy measures, but director David Hunt feels solar panels have distinct advantages over the others.

Wind turbines won’t work in the centre of a town or city – and are almost always contentious when placed anywhere else – but solar panels encounter far fewer objections. And those who install them often find them more effective than they expect.

“People talk about it being wet in Cumbria, but these systems consistently outperform predictions, because they don’t need bright sunshine – they just need daylight,” he explains.

“Obviously the brighter the sunshine the more strongly they will work, but even in the winter people are getting power from them.

“They’re very straightforward to install and they are always coming down in price.”

He says builders are resistant to fitting them because: “They don’t like change. They want to keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last 50 years.”

Householders who had solar panels fitted before December 12 still qualify for the old 43.3p feed-in tariff rate, and many householders in Garrigill, near Alston, managed to get them installed just in time.

“We had a very cloudy December but I’m still expecting about £70, and in the summer months it should be £300 to £400,” predicts villager Fiona Gifford.

“It will work out at about £900 per year.

“My house dates back to the 1700s and there weren’t any great problems fitting them – it took two or three days. So I see no reason why there should be any problems putting them on a new house.

“They work considerably better than wind turbines. There are so many objections to the turbines that it seems ridiculous that the Government subsidises them.

“I think they should direct it towards solar panels and other schemes, such as wave power.”

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