Cost-of-living crisis a ‘watershed moment’ for homeowners to install solar panels

The SEAI estimates an average family in Ireland will knock one-third off their annual bill by installing between four and six panels, each panel usually generating 300-350 watts of power

“I think this may be a watershed moment,” says Joe Reilly, an electrician who switched to installing solar panels two years ago. “Every time there is another news report about fuel bills going up I get even more calls. It is very busy at the moment. It started to build up steam around mid-July but it has just exploded over the last six weeks.”

This time last year Reilly (39), who is based near Ballymahon, Co Longford, had his work diary filled for three weeks in advance. Now he is booked out for mostly small, residential solar panel installations until the new year.

“I’d say I’m getting about twice as many inquiries compared to last September. Most customers have been researching and thinking about it for nearly 12 months,” he says. “The push is on them now, and with the cost of energy it makes more sense than ever.”

When he set up Solar PV Panels Ireland – a small team of around four who work across an arc of the midlands stretching from Longford to Dublin – he was telling homeowners their investment would pay for itself in around 12 years. Now he advises break-even point could be as little as seven years.

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Reilly is one of around 180 solar panel installers registered with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), that list mushrooming from just 13 suppliers five years ago. His boom is borne out countrywide.

Brian O’Mahony, head of communities and retrofit with SEAI, which administers green energy grants to homeowners, says applications have doubled over the past year. “Last year we were dealing with around 6,700 applications a month. This year it is between 13,000 and 14,000 a month. We are seeing a significant increase in people doing this. A lot of it is playing into war in Ukraine, the price of electricity but also concerns about the climate.”

Last February the Government announced its “one-stop-shop scheme” for green energy supports. There were no significant changes to what is on offer for solar PV but it marked a “step change” in interest which “has been maintained since”.

While batteries are no longer funded, homeowners now get credits from their commercial energy supplier for any extra solar power they do not use that drips into the national grid. That can account for up to 30 per cent of power generated.

Prices paid from utilities have soared in line with increasing costs, from as little as 6 cent a unit two years ago up to between 13 and 20 cent now. It only accounts for a minor part of the savings from solar, but every little helps.

The real savings are in producing your own electricity, which is currently costing between 25 and 30 cent a unit from suppliers like SEE Airtricity, Electric Ireland and Energia.

O’Mahony calculates average homeowners will have paid for their standard four to six solar PV panels within 10 years, based on electricity bills charging around 25 cent a unit of power. If the tariff is 30 cent a unit, payback slides to eight years.

Less than two years ago the SEAI was quoting payback periods of 12 years based on average bills at the time.

“Because we are paying more for each unit of electricity now, and the price of electricity is probably going to increase, the payback periods are much more attractive,” says O’Mahony.

The SEAI estimates an average family in Ireland will knock one-third off their annual bill by installing between four and six panels, each panel usually generating 300-350 watts of power.

Systems cost between €4,500 and €5,500 typically, to include the inverter, controls and meters. The grant scheme offers homeowners up to €2,400 towards the installation of PV panels, calculated on the energy that will be generated from them.

Homes must have an energy performance rating of BER C or better to apply for the one-off payment. An “optimal” six panels for an average home costing €4,500-€5,500 could attract €1,800 in grant aid.

Last year around 7,000 grant applications were successful. This year to date more than 11,000 have already been rubber-stamped.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that energy-monitoring apps that come with solar panel systems in turn make homeowners more conscious of their energy use, and more likely to change their habits to make further savings.

Stuart Hobbs, director of energy service for SSE Airtricty, calls it the “gamification” of home energy use. “It is almost like switching a light on, excuse the pun,” he says. “People who install solar start thinking immediately when it is best to use it in the home. Will I put the dishwasher on now or will I wait until I’m generating more power? That then becomes a gateway into other things.”

Solar users learn to prioritise their energy, says Hobbs, usually focusing first on the fridge, then the cooker, lights, laptop and other devices, and directing any excess to hot water if they have a hot water diverter installed.

SSE Airtricty bought a 50 per cent stake in Monaghan-based company Active8, one the largest residential solar PV installers in the country. Last month Taoiseach Micheál Martin announced a 200-job expansion at its Carrickmacross headquarters.

Hobbs says it has seen a “300 per cent” increase in customer inquiries over the past year and demand has been “holding up”.

“Last year we did over 1,000 installations. We are expecting to do more than 2,000 this year. The energy crisis is definitely a factor. Many people just want to be more self-sufficient, more sustainable.”

Around 2 million homes in Ireland are suitable for solar, he adds. “It doesn’t need beating down sunshine, it just needs natural sunlight. I haven’t seen any geographic barriers. With the change in the cost of energy, some could be looking at a payback period of between five and eight years,” says Hobbs.