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November 2020
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Civic solar installations: embracing the long view

A year ago, large numbers of public sector organisations were taking advantage of government Feed-In Tariffs (FITs) to install solar panels on the roofs of civic buildings. Now, with FITs rates cut in half, the public mood couldn’t be more different. The court battle between the government and the solar industry over FITs rates muddied the waters. And unscrupulous ‘sharks’ in the marketplace, misrepresenting the facts about solar ROI, have made organisations understandably nervous about going forward with planned installations.

Yet the picture of solar in the UK is not as black and white as it may seem. It is not the case that solar was a good investment last year, and now it is a bad investment.

Battling short-termism

Although payback periods will be longer as a result of FITs cuts, ROI and payback are still dependent on a number of different factors and it is impossible to generalise. Lots of figures for solar payback are thrown around 5 years, 10 years, 18 years, but it all depends on values of irradiation, shading, inclination of panels and more.

However, it’s crucial to also consider on-going savings on electricity and how this will impact payback periods. We’ve seen electricity prices increase annually and this is a trend that is likely to continue. Public buildings, with their high staff numbers and extensive public footfall, can spend tens of thousands of pounds on energy every year. This means that taking advantage of free electricity generated by solar power can reduce their bottom line considerably, even without the added bonus of high subsidies.

The ‘austerity’ mood of the UK has understandably led to a degree of short-termism, where if the numbers do not stack up immediately, a project is automatically shelved. However, this short-term mind-set overlooks the bigger picture. CO2 targets and environmental legislation, such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment, mean that weighing up the benefit of projects like solar installations should involve more than simply looking at today’s balance sheet.

Lofty goals vs. cost realities

A recent poll by the Guardian found that 78% of respondents, from the public, private and third sectors, felt that the public sector should lead the way in sustainability. If the public sector is expected to be the leader in sustainability, this calls for a long-term view on green projects. Yet those in the public sector must still walk a tightrope, aiming for lofty environmental goals, while still satisfying the pressing need to keep costs to a minimum.

Astute organisations have realised that, in order to achieve a good rate of return on civic solar installations, they must watch every penny. There is no longer any margin for error. This means speeding up installation times; simplifying maintenance works; avoiding expensive roof reinforcement works; and ensuring the solar panels are always working at maximum capacity.

Whole-life analysis

Undertaking a successful solar installation can mean a delicate balancing act between initial costs and whole-life costs. Skimping on quality in the short term can produce a maintenance headache several years down the line.

Because solar panel mounting systems are exposed to extremes of weather for long periods of time, opting for mounting systems made from cheap materials will almost certainly lead to big maintenance bills in the future. It’s important to make sure all materials used in a solar installation have been properly treated to ensure resistance to corrosion. Salt-water-resistant aluminium and galvanised high-grade steel are an absolute must.

Installation hassle

However, one initial expenditure that can, and should,be kept to a minimum is installation costs. During installation of solar panels, the potential for expensive delays is high, especially if you choose a mounting system with a large number of screw fixings and complex components. This type of system means that installers have to carry a large number of tools and parts in their van and then transfer all of this equipment onto the roof itself. The end result is a needless amount of time spent on the roof, fiddling around with tricky fixtures and fittings.

Looking for a simple mounting system design, requiring a lower inventory of parts and fewer tools, is a good way to make sure your installers don’t end up mired in labour-intensive rooftop works.

Flat roof problems

Many organisations anticipate having to perform works on their civic buildings to make sure the roof is suitable for the solar installation, particularly when dealing with flat roofs, which can be notoriously difficult. Avoiding such roof-strengthening works is an obvious way to keep costs low.

State-of-the-art mounting systems have now been engineered to be low-weight-bearing by design. For flat roofs, the ballasts used can add greatly to the weight of the installation, and this is why the best modern designs keep the number of ballasts to a minimum. At TRITEC UK, the latest innovation is the TRI-STAND Aero mounting system, which ensures that solar installations require at least 50% less ballast, compared with conventional flat roof supports.

Maximising yield

It’s easy to feel that, once the solar panels are in place and you’ve ticked every box, quick installation, high-quality materials, etc.- the job is finished. However, in order to maintain your yields from solar panels and anticipate the need for any maintenance works, regular monitoring of installations is also essential. In the past, we had to make do with multi-meters and clip-on ammeters for monitoring.

However, new technology, like the hand-held TRI-KA monitoring device from TRITEC UK, establishes a wireless connection between the measuring device and the panel sensor. This speeds up the job of maintenance and removes the need for expensive wiring. Investing in the right technology right from the start can make the difference between a successful, smoothly-run solar PV system and one that is an endless headache.

Most of all, it’s important to remember that much of the pessimism that currently surrounds solar in the UK simply stems from confusion over the situation. While it’s true that Feed-In Tariff cuts mean that solar is no longer the boon it was last year, rising energy prices mean that it is still a sound investment. In fact, provided public sector organisations approach their solar installations with a careful eye on keeping installation and maintenance costs low, solar can still reap long-term benefits for the public sector, both financially and environmentally.

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