Ten top tips for investing in solar PV

With mis-selling of solar PV products an ever-present risk, agricultural solar expert Tom Morley offers advice to avoid getting ripped off

Solar PV has become a popular choice for poultry farmers since the solar Feed-in Tariff was introduced in 2010.

Although this FiT has been progressively reduced, panel prices have also come down, by about 30%, so solar photovoltaic (PV) continues to deliver good investment opportunities and energy security for high energy users such as poultry producers.

However, as with any new industry, there are risks. There is an increasing trend towards rogue solar PV installers mis-selling products to farmers or providing poor advice that leads to an under-performing system, or higher initial costs. Avoiding this comes down to choosing the right installer – not an easy task in a saturated market.

So here are 10 top tips to help poultry farmers choose more wisely.

Tip 1- Research

You can do a lot of research on the web. One of the best places to start is the Energy Saving Trust (www.energysavingtrust.org.uk), where you can find a list of Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accredited installers.

You’ll need an MCS accredited installer if you want to claim the FiT. The list is quite long, so search for the independent installers that are not tied to a manufacturer. Independents are better placed to give you impartial advice, and provide a solution suited to your particular circumstances. For example, sourcing solar panels that are resistant to ammonia is a key consideration for poultry farmers – installers tied to a manufacturer may not be able to supply the right panels.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, look for a solid business history and relevant sector experience. It is important they know and understand the specific energy usage and needs of a poultry farmer. For example, an experienced installer should know that the higher energy generation of solar PV panels during the summer months will match the higher energy demand for ventilation and powering feed hoppers. Inside industry knowledge and experience will result in the delivery of a system better tailored to your needs.

Finally, solar PV companies should also always supply warranties on both equipment and systems.

Tip 2 – Site visit by an engineer

Poultry farmers may have a variety of energy needs from grain drying and ventilation to lighting, cooling and refrigeration. No two farms will be the same, so a thorough site visit is a critical prerequisite to delivering the right solution.

In short, a solar PV installer should always request a site visit before supplying a quote. If they don’t, how can you be sure the system they provide will be suitable for your site? For example, there will be specialist considerations unique to poultry farmers. A ground-mounted system may perform better than a roof-mounted system if the available roof space is not south facing. A ground-mounted system can even provide shade for free-range birds on hot days. Without a visit, these factors cannot be taken into consideration.

A site visit also gives you the chance to discuss the various options available and the one that will best fit your business needs and budget. For this you need access to the installer/engineer, not a sales representative, so that you can be sure of getting expert advice.

The installer will also review your farm buildings and assess if your buildings and roofs are suitable. As a result you will have a better understanding of how to maximise the value of your farm buildings, or utilise underused or hard-to-farm areas of land.

Tip 3 – Quotations

If a solar PV installation company gives you an instant quote – beware! You will be spending a fair sum of money, so you want your supplier to carefully consider the design of your system. To maximise return on investment, you will need a system tailored to your business needs, your energy demands, your specific location and your budget – for this level of detail, quotations will take some time to prepare.

Tip 4 – The small print

We all forget to read the small print sometimes. With solar PV it is very important that you do so. First of all, make sure that there are no hidden extras. Your quote should include everything that is required, with any extras – such as monitoring systems – clearly marked as optional.

In addition, you should look carefully for any exaggerated claims. For example, is your quote based on a conservative estimate of how much electricity you use? The installer should base their predictions on at least one year’s worth of your electricity usage.

Is the installer providing an accurate estimation on how much solar electricity you can expect to generate? This will depend on any shading that might occur at different times of the year and which direction your roof faces. If your building faces south-south west for instance, then a conservative prediction would be based on figures for a south-west facing roof, not a south facing roof. Any exaggerated claim could lead to considerable differences in the predicted energy generation for your system, from one installer to the next.

If you want to ensure that your supplier is giving a realistic prediction, ask to speak to a previous customer, in a similar location and with a similar system size. Ask the customer how their system has performed against the predictions made in the quote.

Tip 5 – The size of the installation

With falling grain yields and rising feed costs, finding opportunities to cut costs are increasingly important to poultry farmers. As high energy users, power consumption is always a concern, and solar PV can provide a cost-effective way to reduce energy bills. However, to maximise profits, some solar PV installers will look to put up the largest system that will fit on to your roof space. But this might not be the best option for you. “Over-installing” will result in higher initial costs and a greater financial burden on the farmer than is necessary.

Together with your installer, look at what you need and install that, no more, to gain the maximum return on your investment.

Tip 6 – Recommendations

You want to be sure before your installation goes ahead that you have chosen an honest, trustworthy and reliable company. So always ask to speak to a previous customer of your potential solar PV supplier. Find out what they think of their system, the advice they were given and the approach the supplier took. Did the installer keep them informed regarding the install date? Did they turn up when they said they would? Did they leave property and site in a neat and tidy state? Was the final invoice the same as the quotation?

Finally, you may have spotted solar PV panels in your area. Chat with other farmers in your location who have installed solar PV – find out which suppliers they used and if they would recommend them.

Tip 7 – Energy Performance Certificates

All properties now require an energy performance assessment. Your solar installer should be able to advise you on the process of attaining the required certification.

Tip 8 – Maintenance

Most solar PV systems require minimal maintenance as they have no moving parts. You will normally find that rainwater will keep your panels clean.

Post installation, make sure your installer shows you how to check everything is working properly, and to recognise the signs for under performance.

If anything should go wrong, you want to be sure you selected a company that provides good customer service, before and after installation. Ask them to confirm their post-installation maintenance and care policy.

Tip 9 – Planning permission

You may require planning permission, but unlike with wind turbines, it is a short and simple process. Most solar PV installations don’t require planning permission, but if you are in a conservation area or national park, you’ll need to consult your local authority. Make sure your installer provides advice on planning issues, and guides you through the necessary process.

Tip 10 – Seek independent advice

If you have any questions or queries, get in touch with an independent adviser, such as the Energy Savings Trust at www.energysavingtrust.org.uk

* Tom Morley is managing director of installation business Solar Technology, www.solar-technology.co.uk