Are there companies that install PV photoelectric solar panels for free?

installers put PV panels on a roof

Some companies offer to install photovoltaic (PV) solar electric panels on house roofs for free, providing the owner of the house with free electricity. This may sound "too good to be true", but in countries like Germany, where Feed-in tariffs (FITs) for PV panels have been around for many years, the idea of "renting out" a roof for a company to install their solar panels is not uncommon.

Under the UK FITs scheme, the generation tariff (tariff paid for every unit of electricity generated) income from a PV roof in a very good location should be enough for a company to repay the costs of installing the panels and make a decent profit - even when the electricity is given away for free (see How much will a domestic PV system earn?). Companies will only generally offer an installation like this on the best sites, where they can recoup their investment in a reasonable time.

For a home owner who can't afford the up-front cost of a PV roof, this could potentially be an attractive option to turn (south-facing) roof space into free electricity.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that it can be financially more attractive to buy your own PV panels. The savings you get from a 3kW (about 20 square metres) PV roof owned by someone else might lead to savings of between £100 and £150 per year, so perhaps two to three thousand pounds over 20 years. However, if you pay for the installation yourself and so receive the full FIT income, then your total income and savings over 20 years may be about £8,000 from panels which cost about £6,000 - so much more financially beneficial to you in the long term.

A Which? survey suggested that it was far more profitable to take out a loan to cover the cost of the panels (e.g. extend a mortgage) and claim the FITs yourself than to go to one of these companies. You can use our Solar Calculator to see roughly how much you could earn from a PV scheme if you pay for it yourself.

If you are considering to take up an offer for free PV panels, you need to take a very careful look at the conditions of the offer to avoid problems later on. The questions below were taken from a document produced by Consumer Focus (a body that has since been abolished and absorbed into Citizens Advice) and run through some of the things you should ask before signing a contract for free PV panels.

You can also see some feedback and advice about free solar roofs on some of the blog entries on the http://www.yougen.co.uk website.

Financial Benefits

  • Who’s paying for the system and its installation? Is that in full?
  • Who gets (a) the feed-in tariff, (b) the export tariff, (c) the ‘free’ electricity?
  • How is the energy measured, and how will the benefit to the consumer change if the rollout of smart meters requires the export to be measured rather than estimated (or ‘deemed’) as at present?
  • How much is this worth to you, and has the provider calculated this on the basis of your actual use?
  • Are there any guarantees for the kit and the financial benefits? What happens if it stops working and generating feed-in tariffs?

Financial risks

  • If there is an up-front payment, is this a loan, and if so is it secured?
  • Are you in effect lending me money to do this, either as a loan or a hire purchase deal? In which case, how long for? What is the AER – annual equivalent interest rate – on the money? Where is your consumer credit license? And, can I have seven or 14 days cooling off (depending on whether the deal was done in person)?
  • What happens if I want to pay off the remaining costs early? Can I have the feed-in tariff re-assigned to me?
  • Will it affect the mortgage or any other financing arrangement?
  • What happens if the company who pays the up-front cost goes out of business during the lifetime of the feed-in tariff?

Installation

  • Who is liable for any damage done to the house, neighbouring buildings, residents and third parties during the installation?
  • Who is responsible for scaffolding or any other kit that is left on site during the installation?
  • Who is responsible for addressing any planning issues or electricity distribution company notification requirements? Who pays any associated costs?
  • Do I need to let my mortgage company and/or buildings insurer know that this installation is taking place? Will I need their permission?

Ownership and maintenance

  • Who owns the kit? And is that all of the kit – ie meter, wires inside the building etc – or just the kit on the roof and/or in the back yard?
  • Can the home owner buy the whole system at a later date?
  • Who pays for maintenance and repairs?
  • Who’s insuring the kit? Against what?
  • What happens if the system stops generating electricity because
  • - a poor quality system has been installed?
    - the system has been incorrectly installed?
    - of damage on site?
  • Who is responsible for removing the system once its useful life is over?

Change in property ownership

  • What happens if I move house and the new owners don’t want to ‘inherit’ the deal?
  • Who pays (a) for removing the kit (b) if my roof needs repairing or (c) if the kit is damaged beyond repair?
  • Who can consumers trust?
  • Are the installers and product registered with the Microgeneration Certification Scheme? (MCS, http://www.microgenerationcertification.org)
  • Are they members of the Renewable Energy Consumer Code or equivalent?
    This aims to protect consumers, and is currently developing binding rules for its members that will prevent mis-selling by ‘free’ PV schemes. It already has rules in place to cover leasing and hire purchase schemes.

Finally, as mentioned above, not all UK home owners will be able to benefit from such offers. As companies will try to maximize their profits, they will target the roofs with the lowest costs (i.e. easy access for installing the panels) and highest electricity production (south-facing roofs in sunny parts of the country - see Is my home a good site for PV panels?)

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