Solar Panel Observations

Recently I posted my thoughts on solar panels on my Facebook feed in response to an article that appeared in The Age. I received quite got a few comments from friends and family. Some people agreed with me and others didn’t – so I thought I would publish my rant onto our journal page for everyone’s thoughts and comments. Feel free to tell me what you think.

I am somewhat sceptical towards the growing trend of installing solar panels on individual housing. I see many of poorly maintained houses in my area with new solar panels and I worry that they have created a difficult long term situation for themselves. We need to be careful installing solar panels. I believe that if the same money were to be invested into better construction methods to insulate and make buildings airtight we would achieve comparable energy savings. I have not done a cost analysis but my reasons are that it is rare for do homeowners do both – that is insulate and maintain their homes really well and install solar panels. Installing solar panels seems like an easy fix – pay money, reduce bills and have a positive impact on the environment. But in truth the building fabric needs to do work to reduce the need for energy consumption.

So let’s say that if a homeowner is prepared $10,000-$20,000 on solar panels – my advice would be to use that money to improve the roof insulation, wall insulation and window specification. By so doing the homeowner will reduce the need for energy consumption and end up with a better dwelling to enjoy. My suggestion is to use the money to maintain and improve the house and then and only then should you consider the installation of solar panels. Renewable energy should be produced by governments at every level, community organisations like schools and churches, by commercial organisations with good governance and potentially multi-unit developments with good body corporate structures that can manage the facility.

Home owners are taking on the task of renewable in the absence of good government policy and in a bid to reduce the cost of running their homes. They want to do the right thing but often they don’t have the means to deal with waste, maintenance, coordination, management and the like. Solar installation is complicated and you can be easily sold a system that may or may not suit your needs. You need to design a total system – that is more or less – out of date from the moment it goes in. Good independent reliable advice is difficult to obtain from consultants. And we are beholden to a poorly regulated supply chain and changing technology. It worries me that there is a move to install more panels without due regard to how the panels integrate into the home, the roof system and long term impact of waste and energy production. There is an abundance of good industrial buildings in and around Melbourne which can be used to harvest sunlight for energy generation. It is a shame and a sad reality that there is little economic incentive for land owners to do so. In my view these large holdings offer a better option to manage a solar installation that could benefit the local community.

Individual home owners should not have to take on this burden of managing a small energy generation system on their roof. Instead they should invest in making the fabric of their (small) footprint dwelling (windows, insulation, better lighting, sealing gaps, reducing waste, sun shading, landscaping etc) to do the passively work to reduce the need for electricity to power their homes. Heating and cooling is the best place to start – followed by lighting and then appliances. The benefit is lower running costs, less maintenance and a healthier home that does the work without the need for excessive power from external sources.

Comment 1. “We need both! Better construction and more non-fossil fuel based energy generation. My fear is the push from the nuclear lobby and their self description of being non-fossil fuel based. They don’t mention the issue of the nuclear waste.”

Comment 2. “Great perspective. I removed the air conditioner in my house years ago. Curtains, insulation and some thought on hot days means we resort to a fan only on super hot days. We are so busy trying to ignore nature rather than working in sympathy to it.”

Comment 3. “Definitely a problem on the horizon – happily the panels will likely have a much longer life than projected but they do lose their efficacy. And in our disposable lifestyles people won’t act responsibly unless made to do so (especially as it won’t be homeowners removing them but someone they pay who will do it as cheaply as possible). I agree on the building problem – when we were reglazing here the window people kept trying to talk us out of double-glazing, saying it really wasn’t better!? It really IS and has made all the difference!”