back to article Solar panel selling scam shown up by sting

Solar panel sales cowboys are - surprise! - exaggerating the benefits of the energy technology, a sting operation by consumer magazine Which? has found. Which? invited 12 solar companies to survey a house and produce cost and benefit estimates for a solar PV system. Seven out of the 12 recommended putting the panels in the …


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  1. Tom7

    Because we've never seen this strategy before

    A Great Leap Forward for the energy supply.

    Mine's the one with the little red book in the pocket.

    1. LaeMing Silver badge

      Joking aside, you may have hit the nail.

      The whole home-PV thing smacks of exactly the sort of thinking that had Mao's legions melting everyone's cookware down to kick-start the local steel industry instead of, say, opening more mines.

      I am a pretty strong environmentalist, but no matter which way I run the numbers, without subsidies the grid will (or at least should) always be cheaper for me to buy PV power from. The grid suppliers have the sort of bulk-buying power that I will never have, not to mention economies of scale for in-house maintenance, and far better scope for load-balancing. They would be smart to more widely distribute their source-generation (which PV makes much easier than with fossil) to save on line-losses, but otherwise I can't see how I could supply my own power cheaper than the grid (again, not counting subsidies, of course).

      For now, and likely forever, at the personal level it is cheaper (actually my main motivation, TBH) and more environmental for me to keep finding new ways to cut my consumption at the sink-end of the circuit, but source from the grid (preferably with more and more renewables supplying the grid).

  2. Refugee from Windows

    Shows the benefits of instant experts

    So how much training do these experts get? Do they have good data for daylight and likely energy yield? Thought not. Maybe they ought to "borrow" some of the Open University material.

    I wouldn't want this to sell the leccy, I'd like it as a backup for when, in the face of underinvestment, we face the prospect of power cuts.

    1. Alicia

      Comment here

      Cowboys won't bother accessing the appropriate data, but anyone who has a PV or ST Installation Qualification (they do exist, I worked on a project that developed them, but they're very new) will know how to do the calculations and where to get their data from. (The courses are 4 - 5 days, but you're required to be a qualified electrician before you can take it)

      I don't think the qualifications are mandatory for installers yet, but I believe they will be in the near future.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Its not the tax payers directly funding the TIF its from a small extra charge on everyones energy bills.

  4. gerryg

    Before anyone says it isn't a tax...

    I thought I'd repost from 11 May

    Why are levy funded subsidies taxes?

    Levy funded subsidies count as both tax and spend in the National Accounts drawn up by Office of National Statistics. This is because they involve Government-mandated transfers of value between individuals or entities. A payment (such as a levy) is a tax if it is:

    Compulsory – relevant individuals/entities have no choice but to pay; and

    Unrequited – those paying receive no direct commensurate benefit in return.

    In addition, even where a scheme is obligation based, these entail a payment to other parties that is mandated by Government and so represents a tax. So levies count as tax even if no funds are actually received, or paid out by, the Exchequer and even if there is no option to pay a charge rather than meeting an obligation (a buy-out option).

    1. gerryg

      technically - it's a tax...

      That's why HM Treasury published the note and it's deposited with Parliament.

      Is that technical enough for you or did I miss something?

      For your economics class you could try this:

    2. Anonymous Coward


      This "small" extra charge currently adds 14% to your electricity bill and will only get larger.

    3. Apocalypse Later

      "Why are levy funded subsidies taxes?"

      Because of bureaucratic double-speak?

      The important distinction here is that the feed-in tariffs are set in stone by long term contracts between the panel owners and the power companies. They are not subsidies that can be withdrawn by the government when they become unpopular. Very likely the terms of these contracts, for NEW contracts, will be altered soon, but the government is not a party to existing PV contracts already entered into.

  5. jay_bea

    Pressure Selling?

    A few houses near us have sprouted PV Panels recently, often on east facing roofs. East facing placement is not ideal but better than one nearby house which has a bank of 5 panels fixed vertically onto a south-facing wall, in the shadow of the house next door. I suspect that the sun might go out before the end of the payback period on that one.

    1. handle

      Solar facts

      As far as I understand it... east-facing roofs will produce between 10-15% less electricity than south-facing roofs. The difference is not enormous because of the sinusoidal drop-off and because sunlight, when averaged, does not come from a point source - it moves around. Certainly comparing two estimates I have for different parts of my roof, there is an 11% pro-rata drop-off for the east-facing one (although it is incorrectly described as west-facing which may or may not be in the calculation).

      Vertical surfaces produce about 30% less electricity - at least south-facing ones, compared with ideally-sloping (20-40 degrees) south-facing roofs.

      Shading, even a small amount, is Very Bad, because it can affect many more cells than the ones shaded, due to the way they are wired up. I would think that any panels installed in any area where there is shade would have been put in by cowboys.

      1. Alicia

        Interesting title

        Shading is very bad, but if it only occurs when the sun is low (and therefore the radiation available to the panel is low) it's worth the pay off when the panel is unshaded and there are high levels of radiation.

        The drop off in East/ West facing is 10-15% at the optimal tilt (roughly 30 degrees from horizontal in the UK) but can increase to 40 - 50% as the tilt varies. In the UK it's optimal to point the array slightly East of South, so a West facing array would have less exposure than an East facing array. However, you can split your array across an East and West facing roof surface. The arrays need to be tracked seperately, but you'll get a better performance overall (although the reduced number of modules per string means you need to be sure each string is within the tracking range of the inverter)

        Which icon means pedant alert?

  6. Barrie Shepherd

    More Spin

    Seems that the Double Glazing salesmen have retrained as Solar Panel salesmen.

    As for the FIT this is currently a debacle in the New South Wales Government , who have a similar too lucrative scheme, where they are desperately trying to reduce the payment having discovered that it costs a lot.

    The domestic solar "initiative" is nothing more than a wealth redistribution system!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Seems that the Double Glazing salesmen have retrained as Solar Panel salesmen"

      Bet you didn't think Everest 'would be doing that'

  7. Ian Emery Silver badge

    Solar is over rated

    Geo-thermal is the sensible option IF you can afford to install it

    1. Anonymous Coward


      ... but can anyone suggest a supplier to deliver me a tankerload of red-hot magma to keep mine going?

    2. Anonymous Coward

      Do you know what are you talking about?

      Have you tried getting a drilling permit in the UK? It is not like we are in Sweden or Norway ya know.

      This is for a reason by the way - most of the UK is sedimentary rock so pumping water into it (for the usual non-hot-spring geothermal method) may actually be a very bad idea.

      1. JaffaMan

        Drilling permit?!

        Drilling permit?! What's that? Coming from someone who drills hundreds of holes a year, the only permit you need to drill is from the Coal Authority if you're drilling into coal measures.

        Unless of coarse you're talking about regulator approval for abstracting/dumping heat into an aquifer and making sure it doesn't get over done in a local area....

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Ian, were you talking about... ?

      Ground source (aka geothermal) heat pumps are relatively popular in some areas of the states. They use the ground, which at a relatively shallow depth is pretty stable in temp as the average annual surface temp, as a heat/cool sync for winter/summer respectively. They are more expensive than a standard HVAC but at the same time much more efficient.

      As someone said earlier, improving efficiency is really much more efficient (dollar wise and otherwise) than trying to compete with the grid.

    4. Naughtyhorse

      IF you can afford to install it...

      Same can be said of nuclear

  8. sisk Silver badge

    Good grief

    " whereby the taxpayers subsidises the 'surplus' electricity for a domestic solar installation by paying several times over the market price "

    No wonder so many Brits are down on renewables. You have systems in place that artificially inflate the price of both wind and solar power.

    1. handle

      Better to have solar power...

      ...than not. Consider the long-term environmental (and hence financial) costs of burning fossil fuels and a bit of a subsidy on solar power (which will, with luck, help to reduce its price by encouraging research and mass-production) may well be a small price to pay. This subsidy for new installations, by the way, will reduce by 8% per year from next April, if that makes you feel better, and of course the price of conventional generation is forecast to rise steeply, meaning that the proportion of your electricity produced by these means will rise in cost accordingly. If that proportion is reduced due to solar power being fed into the grid, the rise will be smaller.

      So, as usual, there's a lot more to it than a headline whinge about "tax".

      PS the article is wrong - it's not the 'surplus' electricity that's subsidised, it's all the electricity. The amount generated is metered; the amount fed into the grid is not.

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        @Handle - Both are metered, both are subsidised to slightly different degrees.

        It's a truly heinous scheme, even if you do want to force generation away from fossil fuels.

        By paying the 43.3p for all generation, plus 3.1p on anything exported, this means that the 'real cost' of PV electricity is truly astounding.

        Let's say that on average you use 90% of the generation and export 10%.

        This means you'll get 43.3p generation plus 0.31p export tariff, a total of 43.61p per mean generated kWh.

        You're only putting 0.1 kWh onto the Grid, which means *everyone else* is paying you an astounding 436.1p per Grid kWh.

        Now the other way of looking at it is to say that you are part of the grid. That way, you are being paid between 43.3p and 46.4p per kWh, depending on how much you export.

        Eitehr way, could you afford to pay that much for your electricity?

        1. Mark 65 Silver badge

          @Handle, @Richard 12

          Bejeebus, at least where I am in Oz they only pay for the net i.e. if you use 90% of what you make then good on you but you're only getting paid for the 10% you export. Their tariff is also around 3 times the retail rate for feed in but that's only just over 50c (35p). To pay so much for gross production is truly heinous. If I lived in the UK I'd be replacing the roof tiles with panels that's such a money maker.

          What's the payback period for say a 1.5 or 2kW system? Over here it is about 6-7 years on our house with our usage (11-14kWh/day depending on the time of year).

      2. Alicia

        Another title

        "The amount generated is metered; the amount fed into the grid is not."

        Actually the amount fed into the gris is metered seperately to the amount produced. Because as well as the FiT, you get "reimbursed" by your electricity supplier for every unit you send their way. I think it's about 3p per unit

        1. handle


          No, the amount exported into the grid is NOT metered (at least for domestic installations), even though you do, as you say, get paid 3p a unit. The installation only provides one extra meter. It is simply assumed that you will use 50% of what you generate, and export the other 50%, so as well as the 43.3p/unit Generation Tariff so you get paid effectively 1.5p/unit Export Tariff.

          This might sound odd, but considering that the Generation Tariff is 15 times the Export Tariff, you can see why the initial and ongoing cost of an extra meter to measure how much is exported might not be justifiable.

          If you tailor your electricity consumption to use as much as possible of you own generated electricity, you will reduce your electricity bills without making any difference to the amount you are paid for generation and export.

        2. Apocalypse Later

          The amount generated is metered; the amount fed into the grid is not.

          They can separately meter the amount fed to the grid, but in domestic installations they usually don't bother. My tariff contract simply "deems" 50% to be fed into the grid, regardless, and I get paid on that basis.

          1. Richard 12 Silver badge

            Bloody hell, then it is even *worse* than I thought.

            And I thought it was bad already!

            So you're being paid 44.8p/unit generated, even if nothing whatsoever leaves the house?

            1. Apocalypse Later

              So you're being paid 44.8p/unit generated, even if nothing whatsoever leaves the house?

              Yes. And it is index linked. The rates went up in April.

              I was thinking about pre-heating the water for the hot water system, by fitting an extra hot water tank with an immersion heater, coupled to a photo-electric sensor that would turn it on only when the sun was pouring down. That would avoid wasting the free electricity on the grid and save me a lot of central heating oil, and I would still get the same money from the FIT. The electricity companies don't care; they just want the credits for the renewable generation.

              1. Phillip.

                Problem with the system?

                So what you are saying, ApocalypseLater, is that the system is rigged to reward you for being more energy efficient?


                1. Apocalypse Later

                  Title request denied- resubmit with detailed reasons

                  "So what you are saying, ApocalypseLater, is that the system is rigged to reward you for being more energy efficient?"

                  I'm saying that a pragmatist doesn't care whether the system is "rigged" or why. Turn the handle the way it goes.

  9. Scott Broukell

    Something should be done ....

    Unabated Gas - I suffer from bouts myself, usually after a mixture of curry and lager!

    (It had to be said ........ ah! that's better.)

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Correct me if I'm wrong but -

    Aren't there solar technologies that can happily produce even when not in direct sunlight? IIRC they cost a little more than the other types.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Allow me to correct you:

      These things convert light to electricity - more light = more juice.

      "not in direct sunlight" = in shade = much less light.

      So they won't happily produce, they'll "sort of produce", at a (small) fraction of what they would do if they were pointed directly at the sun as intended.

      But at least the person who's house they were on would be scamming us for less subsidy (although I think the installer still gets their bung at our expense).

  11. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    30 year anniversary

    They should cut the subsidy then all the middle class homeowners could come out on strike to defend 300years of solar panel capacity.

    IT would be nice to hold the 30th anniversary of Corton wood in St Johns Wood

  12. Paul 139
    Thumb Up

    Not all bad...

    At least the FIT is tied to power production (rather than just a plain old grant to install) - inappropriate installations will take decades to pay back, whereas genuinely useful ones will recoup costs in perhaps 10 years.

  13. GBE

    My solar panels will never break even.

    I've got a 1KW photo-voltaic system that was on my townhouse when I bought it. According to everything I've read, it cost $8000-$10000 to install such a system.

    Over the 8 years it's been there, it's generated an average of about $75 worth of electricity per year. Assuming maintenance costs are zero, it would take 100-130 years to break even. The expected lifetime of the panels is 20 years.

    But, the "SunnyBoy" brand inverter contains relays that (according to the service people) have a life expectancy of about 7 years. Mine failed at about 7-1/2 years right on schedule. A factory reconditioned inverter cost $550-$600 (installed).

    Even if the original installation cost was ZERO, the system can't even pay for its own maintenance!

    The net is: $8000-$10000 in installation, and then an average _loss_ of about $5 per year for the expected lifetime of the panels (about 20 years).


    A much better idea is the remote control switch that the utility installed that allows them to remotely limit the duty cycle of my central air conditioning unit during peak demand periods. For letting them do that, I get a 15% rate reduction during the summer months.

    My cost: $0. My savings: $75 per year.

    1. handle

      Not applicable for a UK article

      We are talking about the situation in the UK (and similar in other European countries), with government subsidies. This makes it financially as well as environmentally worthwhile. Learn about it here:

      1. Mark 65 Silver badge


        Townhouse, $, and Sunnyboy inverter - my guess is they're in Australia. In which case the systems are subsidised alright. $10k system for about $2.5-3k with FIT 3 x normal rate. That's a subsidy in anyone's book which is why I'm interested in what the UK payback period is for different sized systems on your average 3 bedroom house.

        I'm not sure it's ever going to be environmentally worth while. I don't have any figures to hand but these things have tops 14% efficiency and probably take a fair bit of juice to created (hence the $10k normal cost). Environmental they ain't.

        1. handle


          Yes, they may be in Australia, but usually Australians realise there is more than one type of dollar and mention it. Poster said nothing about subsidies either, talking about the full costs of installation. One of my quotes also mentions Sunny Boy inverters, if that's of interest. German company.

          One quote I have is for a 1.15kWp system for just over £6k, which estimates income/savings of about £440 a year (~7%) . There are an awful lot of variables though, such as:

          - interest rates on the money, if invested instead

          - depreciation on the money due to inflation, if invested instead (the generation tariff is index-linked so does not suffer from this)

          - rises in the cost of grid electricity, making the savings larger

          - drop-off in efficiency over time, equipment failure, etc, making the savings smaller

          Savings are of course based on the Standard Assessment Procedure, which Which? apparently doesn't like.

          I am convinced that it will be environmentally worthwhile. The efficiency of the installation is not important so long as you get more out of it than the embodied energy. (Sharp panels are indeed about 14% although you can get different technologies that are 19%, both minus inverter losses of about 10% of course, but then you can offset that against losses in transmission which are virtually nil.) Apparently you get something like a 10:1 advantage, though I don't know who told me that figure.

          If I were doing it just for the money, I probably wouldn't bother, which may please those who think they are victims of an extortion racket.

    2. GBE

      Townhouse w/ SunnyBoy is in US (Minnesota)

      Sorry, I forgot to mention my location. It's in the US (Minneapolis, Minnesota) about 1/4 mile North of the 45th parallel. Yes, I'm told that the original builder got some sort of subsidy from the state. But even if the state paid for half of it, it's all still money down a rat-hole. Generating $75 of power per year with equipment that has $80 per year maintenance costs is a complete scam. Some of my neighbors have identical systems and get even less power due to shade from trees.

  14. Magnus_Pym

    Collect it.

    burn it in some kind of personal power generation system. You could probably power your iPod with it.

    I don't know why but that seems kind of apt.

  15. handle

    On snide "middle class" remarks

    Companies are offering to rent your roof from you, paying you the feed-in tariff while they pocket the generous generation tariff. Yes, you still have to be a freeholder, and the overall payback is less, but it won't cost you £6 to £12k+ either.

    There are all sorts of tax anomalies about. Consider how disproportionately small is the tax on aviation fuel, for instance.

  16. Richard 12 Silver badge

    Slight correction- the FIT pays for everything you generate, not just the "Surplus"

    You get paid the generation tariff of 43.3p for every kWh of electricity you *generate*, regardless of whether you use that yourself or not. (<4kW systems)

    The Surplus (export tariff) is paid at an *additional* 3.1p per kWh on top of the generation rate.

    See - it's even worse than you thought!

    The FIT scheme really is genuinely the worst possible idea anybody could come up with.

  17. David Kelly 2

    Who is surprised?

    Government steps in to tilt market balance and the result is not as expected. This is exactly what happens every single time and no one should be surprised.

  18. Anonymous Coward



    UK's carbon emissions from heat

    that it is maned by a batch of talking heads

  19. Luther Blissett


    > Such projects can engage individuals, neighbourhoods and communities in becoming involved with generating local heat and power.

    I know the sentence following is the obvious screamer - real BS (not short for Big Society, or even busted-flush symbolism), but this one is interesting in an unusual way.

    Suppose we are freshly arrived from Mars and baggage-free. In other words, we have no preconceived ontology of life forms on Gaia, only enough knowledge of the English language to be able to understand the denotations of words. What model under Kripke semantics yields the broadest application of that DECC sentence (defining 'broadest' in terms of straightforward denumerable set membership)? In other words: makes it most true.

    The answer surely is the Plant Kingdom. This ontological set is intimately dependent on solar power, comprises individuals growing in proximity to each other (neighbourhoods), that in many (perhaps all) cases form interdependent communities (aka eco-systems). And it contains (observe the democratic connotation here) the largest group of individuals.

    The conclusion therefore is that you are being invited here to consider yourself, epistemologically and ethically, for all intents and purposes, as equivalent to a plant. Do you accept the challenge?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Engaging to empower to engage

      Don't sweat it, Luther - remember it's only a "symbol" of the Big Society, not an expression of it, nor an instance of it in action. Wearing a {insert colour here} ribbon to show your concern for {insert cause here} is also a symbol, although remember to choose yours carefully, because some symbols clash.

      From that exquisite passage it seems that a lot of civil servants employed during the NuLab era are still hanging around Whitehall, illiterate and unemployable.

      When can we expect a real government to come in and give them the boot?

      1. Graham Dawson


        They're too busy stamping on our collective heads.

  20. Tom 7 Silver badge

    The real thieves

    are the industry.

    Thirty years ago it took 20 years for a PV setup to pay for itself. Now electricity is considerably more expensive in real terms but it still takes about the same time for a PV setup to pay for itself.

    So in the time when the cost of microelectronics has almost evaporated the real cost of PV to the home owner has risen to make it still a good investment ... just. And tarifs just mean big business wants to keep it to itself.

    If 1/10th the money wasted by this tariff lunacy was invested in a 1980's style polysilicon PV production plant the fact that the PV would be cheaper than the tiles you currently use to just keep the rain out would more than ameliorate their supposed inefficiency - a whole roof running at 5% is better than a couple of m2 at 15%.


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