Solar panels work using photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert photons from sunlight into an electrical charge. They transform virtually limitless energy from the sun into usable electricity.
According to NASA, each square metre of the ground receives around 342 watts (W) of solar energy on every square metre of Earth, equaling 44 quadrillion W worldwide. Solar panels enable us to capture a small portion of this enormous energy resource.
Northern Ireland (NI) has been integrating solar panels into its renewables mix for over a decade, with its total capacity increasing from 2 megawatts (MW) in 2011 to 352MW in 2022.
Domestic solar installations in the UK increased by 114% last year, and more homeowners are seeing the benefits of reducing their reliance on the grid, cutting their energy bills, and contributing to greener energy habits.
This guide explores solar panels in Northern Ireland, their benefits, the availability of funding and grants, the installation process and more.
Solar trends in NI
Recent statistics revealed NI’s massive progress towards reducing reliance on gas and fossil fuels and boosting its renewable energy infrastructure:
- Between July 2022 and June 2023, 45.5% of the total electricity consumed in NI was from renewables.
- The consumption during this period amounted to 7,420 gigawatt hours (GWh), of which 3,379 GWh was derived from domestic renewable sources.
With their decreasing costs and increasing efficiency, solar panels will play an instrumental role in helping domestic homeowners switch to renewable energy.
The benefits of NI solar panels
Solar panels are a fundamentally renewable energy resource. Once installed, solar arrays produce no emissions whatsoever and enable homeowners to generate their own power.
- While an initial investment is associated with solar panel installation, the savings on monthly electricity bills can be substantial. A domestic 3.5 kilowatt (kW) system can shave £175 to £420 off bills on average per year, which means the system will pay for itself in as little as 10 years.
- Through the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO), solar power generated by small-scale systems can be sold to energy companies at rates up to 18p per kWh.
- Over time, this translates to a solid return on investment, making solar panels a financially smart choice. You also have to factor in the worth of the equipment and any increase to your property’s value it brings about if you decide to sell.
- Energy prices can be volatile. By producing your electricity, you can insulate yourself from unexpected price surges, leading to more predictable monthly bills.
- One of the primary threats facing our planet is the surging levels of carbon emissions, which drive global warming. Solar panels are a green alternative to fossil fuels, gas and other non-renewables, producing electricity without the harmful byproducts contributing to climate change. While solar panels and associated hardware require energy to manufacture, this is generally neutralised by the third year of use.
- Solar panels provide a clean, simple solution as we move towards more sustainable energy sources. Since solar systems are relatively compact and simple, they’re more straightforward to install for domestic properties and small commercial premises.
- Modern solar systems can function for 20 to 30 years with minimal repairs or replacements. Panels themselves can last for over 30 years. The solar inverter usually needs to be replaced first.
- Having solar panels and the ability to produce your own power means a decreased dependence on the traditional electrical grid, providing both resilience and autonomy. This is particularly beneficial for those in rural or off-grid areas or where grid power is unreliable with frequent outages.
- As energy prices continue to rise, solar power offers a level of continuity. Once installed, solar systems are a consistent source of autonomous energy, reducing ties to energy companies and their costs.
- Many people don’t realise that energy companies charge ‘on peak’ and ‘off peak’ – draw from your solar system during more expensive on-peak hours, and you’ll save even more money. Peak shaving enables solar energy users to moderate their energy usage throughout the day to draw from the grid when it’s cheapest to do so.
Are there any solar panel grants in Northern Ireland and how do I find out if I’m eligible?
There are currently no traditional, large-scale solar panel grants in NI– a similar situation to England, Wales and Scotland.
However, there are multiple routes to alleviate the expenses and make the transition to solar energy more affordable:
1. Local advice and community schemes
Firstly, it’s recommended to reach out to local experts and organisations, as incentives and schemes change every year and vary regionally:
2. Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO)
- Eligibility: This scheme is open to small-scale electricity generators that have received Ofgem accreditation.
- Benefits: If you generate electricity using solar panels, the NIRO allows you to obtain Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) for every MWh of power you produce. After obtaining accreditation from Ofgem, these ROCs can be traded with electricity suppliers. Furthermore, you can enter agreements with an electricity supplier to sell them any excess electricity.
- Savings examples: Some providers, like Power NI, offer up to 17.66p per kWh, while Action Renewables can give 18p per kWh.
3. 0% VAT on Solar Panel Installations
- Eligibility: Available to all domestic solar panel installations in Northern Ireland.
- Details: Northern Ireland has rolled out VAT reductions for solar panel installations to promote the adoption of energy-efficient systems. Since 1 May 2023, the VAT for solar panel systems in NI is 0 per cent, resulting in direct cost savings dependent on the overall cost of the installation.
4. Barclays Greener Home Reward
- Eligibility: This scheme is tailored for Barclays residential mortgage holders who pay by direct debit. The solar installation work needs to be performed by a TrustMark-registered business or tradesperson, and the installation should be completed by 31 July 2024.
- Benefits: If you’re a Barclays mortgage holder and have fully financed a solar panel system, you could be eligible for a £1,000 cashback reward through this scheme.
Installation process for solar panels in NI
Installing solar panels in Northern Ireland is an environmentally responsible decision and a significant investment.
When choosing a solar system for Northern Ireland, the installer should survey the site and/or roof to gauge sunlight exposure and shading throughout the day. They’ll also consider factors such as wind and potential damage or obstruction from falling leaves and foliage.
If you live somewhere with persistent shade, then you might be better off investing in a microinverter system that can optimise individual panels based on their sunlight exposure throughout the day. Microinverters enable each panel to be optimised individually rather than the whole string of panels, as with string inverters.
- Initial assessment and site evaluation: A comprehensive property assessment is essential before any installation begins. This helps determine the best placement for the panels, considering roof orientation, potential obstructions and roof strength.
- System design: After the initial evaluation, a system is designed to cater to specific energy requirements. There are different types of solar systems, for instance grid-tied (no batteries), hybrid/back-up (feature batteries and are attached to the grid) and off-grid (not attached to the grid).
- Materials procurement: With a design in place, the necessary components like solar panels, inverters, batteries and mounting systems are selected.
- Installation: Trained professionals then install the system. They’ll ensure each component is securely in place, properly connected and functioning optimally.
- Timeline: The duration of the installation process usually takes a single day, assuming all components are ready to go and minimal roof modifications are required. If the roof has to be modified or extended, then it could take several days.
Regulations and permissions
- Planning permission: In many cases, solar panel installations fall under ‘permitted development’ in Northern Ireland, meaning you don’t always need planning permission. However, there are exceptions, especially for listed buildings or conservation areas. It’s always best to check with your local council.
- Building regulations: Even if planning permission isn’t required, building regulations must be followed. This ensures the installation is safe and doesn’t adversely affect the integrity of your building.
- Engineering Recommendation EREC G98/NI standard: Solar installations in NI must meet the EREC G98/NI standard. After the system is installed and brought online, the installer will register it with NIE Networks to confirm that it’s connected to the grid.
Choosing an installer
- Accreditations: Opt for an installer accredited by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). This ensures they meet set standards and are qualified for the job.
- Experience and reviews: Look into the installer’s past projects and read reviews from other customers. This gives a clear picture of their expertise and reliability.
- Warranty and after-sales service: A good installer offers installation warranties and robust after-sales support.
How much do solar panels in Northern Ireland cost?
With rising energy prices, the financial appeal of domestic solar power is increasing.
While solar systems require an upfront investment, they pay for themselves over time, offering potentially massive savings over a 20-year period or longer.
Most typical domestic systems can pay for themselves between five and 10 years.
Solar panels and the required mounting systems, inverters, and other necessary equipment come with an upfront cost.
This initial investment varies based on the size of the system (measured in kW), the brand, and the technology used in the panels.
Depending on various factors, the cost of a typical 4kW solar installation for a domestic property can range between £3,500 to £7,300.
How long will it take to see financial savings?
Here’s a breakdown of the costs and savings involved in solar installations:
- Annual energy consumption: The average annual household electricity consumption is approximately 3MWh for households in the UK.
- Potential savings: On average, a household’s annual electricity bill is around £1,156. The integration of solar panels can considerably cut this figure. Firstly, they can reduce the need for external electricity, bringing the annual cost down to about £865, according to a 2023 analysis. Furthermore, the potential to sell surplus electricity back to the grid can earn a household approximately £400 annually, depending on the tariff offered, further reducing the net annual energy bill to around £465. This amounts to potential annual savings of about £725 as an optimistic estimate.
- Return on investment: Factoring in the savings, the initial investment in solar panels could typically be recouped within just under seven years, after which they would save money. Over a 20-year period, the cumulative savings can be quite substantial.
For those wishing to spread the cost of solar panels or even lease them, there are a few options:
- Green energy loans: These are specialised loans with lower interest rates aimed at promoting renewable energy adoption. One example is Lendology’s renewables loan. These loans sometimes require a “title restriction”, meaning you’ll have to settle the loan from the proceeds of the sale of your property if the loan balance is still outstanding when you sell.
- Hire purchase agreements: Spread the cost of a solar system over a set period with the possibility of owning the system outright at the end.
- Provider-specific deals: Some solar providers offer their own deals and financing options.
Solar panel maintenance and performance monitoring in Northern Ireland
Regular maintenance and consistent performance monitoring are crucial to maximise the lifespan and efficiency of any solar panel system.
Solar panels are relatively low maintenance, but they’ll invariably last longer if they’re well-maintained.
- Cleaning: Depending on your location and the surrounding environment, dust and debris can accumulate on the panels. Regular cleaning, usually once or twice a year, can improve efficiency.
- Physical inspections: Periodically checking for any physical damages, rust spots, wear and tear, or issues with mounting equipment is advisable. This helps catch potential problems early.
Modern solar systems offer monitoring tools, allowing homeowners to track their system’s performance in real-time.
- Efficiency tracking: Solar panels may degrade over time and produce slightly less power. Additionally, accumulations of dirt, dust and other debris can affect their efficiency. Monitoring tools help you track this efficiency and assess whether the panels are performing as they should.
- Issue detection: Any significant drop in performance can indicate issues. With monitoring tools, you can detect and address these problems promptly, ensuring minimal disruptions and maximising the return on your investment.
With proper maintenance and monitoring, a solar system can serve you efficiently for many years.
The panels are among the most long-lasting components, whereas inverters are comparatively short-lived and must be replaced every 7 to 12 years for string inverters, or longer in the case of microinverters.
Summary of how to set up solar panels in Northern Ireland
Installing solar panels in NI is a proactive step towards reducing carbon emissions and bolstering environmental sustainability.
The savings can be significant, with many solar systems paying for themselves in just seven years. Moreover, harnessing solar energy gives homes and businesses greater energy autonomy, reducing reliance on traditional electrical grids.
While NI, like the rest of the UK, may not have extensive grants specifically tailored for solar installations, there are incentives that indirectly reduce the financial burden of setting up these systems.
From the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO) allowing electricity generators to claim for each megawatt hour of electricity they generate to VAT reductions on installations, there are financial mechanisms that support solar adoption.
Before diving into the installation process, consider costs and potential savings, the need for site evaluations to determine the best panel placement, local regulations and choosing accredited and experienced solar panel installers.