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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 April, 2005, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Shining some light on solar power
Solar panels
Grants halve the cost of household solar installation
John Prescott found some unwanted solar power panels on the roof of his Hull house as part of a protest. But not everyone gets free installation, so for other households who are thinking about switching to renewable energy, is it worth it?

The energy from the Sun can be harnessed in several ways.

Some buildings are simply designed to collect the heat.

Sunlight can also be used to heat water pipes in a number of ways, such as using hi-tech panels, evacuated tubes or simply by painting thin pipes black and putting them in a "greenhouse" type insulator.

But John Prescott's tormentors used the most widely known solar powered method to make their point - panels on the roof. These have photo cells which convert sunlight directly into electricity.

Photovoltaic cells (PVs) can be used as roof panels or tiles which take advantage of the light coming from the Sun. This is trapped by the cell and turned into electricity.

COSTS & SAVINGS

Many would say the need to curb global warming is far greater than any economic argument, but the cost of solar power is obviously an important factor.

The cost of installation varies, according to the size and energy consumption of the home.

The Energy Savings Trust says the average domestic system costs about 8,000. This includes a 50% discount from a government grant.

Previously it was more of an economic decision but that's balanced out now with rising environmental concerns
Melanie Davis
Solar Century
This kind of system saves between 80 and 100 in annual electricity bills. Such a home would save about nine tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

Industry manufacturers claim all systems add about 1% to the value of your property.

Solar tiles cost more than conventional panels and panels that are integrated into a roof are more expensive than those that sit on top. If major roof repairs are required, then it may be worth considering PV tiles as they can offset the cost of roof tiles.

If more electricity is generated than is needed at certain times in the day, it can be sold back to local electricity companies, depending on the supplier.

FUTURE OF GRANTS

Government grants are available to help households in the shape of the Solar Photovoltaics (PV) Demonstration Programme. It was launched in 2002, a 10-year plan which has so far cost 31m.

But there are question marks over the future of the grants programme. The government says funding is secure until 2006 but it is being reviewed to get taxpayers "a better return on our funding".

Seb Berry of the Renewable Power Association says: "For small-scale installations, there's still a huge question mark about government support and the election campaign has caused a pause in the ongoing debate between the industry, the NGOs and the government about what comes next."

DEMAND HERE & ABROAD

The UK is behind many other countries in using solar power technologies.

In Japan, Germany and the USA, billions has been spent on developing PV.

The grants are credited with helping a boom in solar installations on homes and public buildings across the UK and the cost of the equipment has fallen as a result. Installing companies have grown from seven in 2002 to over 50 today.

By 2005 the government aimed to have 6,000 roofs in the UK fitted with solar panels, but it is unclear whether that target will be met. Germany has about 140,000 and Japan nearly 400,000.

So, is demand led by money-savers or the green-minded?

A bit of both, says Melanie Davis of Solar Century. "Previously it was more of an economic decision but that's balanced out now with rising environmental concerns."


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