Solar power isn’t just for “posh” homes. An expert shows how we can make the energy transition more accessible for everyone.
Picture a house covered in solar panels, their blue cells soaking up the sun's rays.
What are your assumptions about the people who live inside?
For the subjects of a UK study into ‘solar entitlement’, it was that they’re “posh” homeowners.
Over 10 months, Dr Nicolette Fox visited seven households of social housing tenants who were surprised to be offered PV panels by their local authority back in 2014.
“When you watch programmes [they are] to do with posh [eco-homes]. You don’t think about that sort of house on a council estate to be honest, do you?” said Barbara, one of the anonymised participants.
It’s not surprising, writes Dr Fox, that the families felt the current system of solar domestic production was not designed with them in mind. “Why else would it require them to have credit on their prepayment meter before they could use the solar power they had generated?”
Despite their initial scepticism, the families took ownership of the opportunity to become prosumers - both producing and consuming rooftop solar energy.
They “developed practices to ensure the effective running of the technology” and “reaped the benefits in health and wellbeing that cheaper access to electricity can bring,” Dr Fox found.
Today, UK charity Child Poverty Action Group estimates that half of British households are in fuel poverty, spending more than 10 per cent of their net income on fuel. The need to make free, clean energy accessible to all households has never been greater.
But the solar roll-out isn’t just “fit and forget”, Dr Fox tells Euronews Green.
This is what she says policymakers should bear in mind.
‘Feeding the meter’: Do solar panels save you money?
For the families that Dr Fox interviewed, all living in one of the 10 per cent most deprived areas in England, ‘feeding the meter’ was a constant backdrop to their lives.
Prepayment meters - which energy companies are currently under fire for forcibly fitting in peoples’ homes - mean that households have to pay for energy before, rather than after, they've used it.
When the credit in the meter runs out, you can be plunged into darkness mid-dinner.
So it was a boon for the families to notice that solar energy generation meant their meter payments were lasting much longer.
Though the PV system did come with a meter showing how much solar energy had been generated, it was installed up in the loft. So the payment meters were a better way for residents to tell what difference the new panels were making.
And they soon began conducting ‘mini-experiments’ to fine-tune the impact; doing the laundry at sunny times, for example.
“After a while you’re thinking: ‘Well it does work because I did my little test’. Then [the solar panels] just become the normal thing that’s working in your house and saving you money,” said Barbara.
How do solar panels benefit energy-vulnerable homes?
Winter was a challenge for the new prosumers. “I was heartbroken,” said Frankie, seeing how much hungrier the meter became during the shorter days.
But it also sparked an energy literacy that most of us lack. Inspired by her summer savings, one woman (Irene) kept a record of the weather and started doing some energy-sucking domestic chores during daylight light.
“She was the most striking,” says Dr Fox. “Some weeks, in the winter, she cut her electricity bill by half compared to the year before. That was quite extraordinary.”
It meant she could afford new shoes for her son.
Becoming a solar prosumer not only reduced Irene’s stress levels but also gave her a “feeling of empowerment”, meaning she no longer deferred to her husband as the energy expert.
For Barbara, doing many of her jobs earlier in the day to coincide with peak solar production had an unexpected benefit: free time in the evening.
Solar has to fit in with domestic routines
But the study also suggests that peoples’ domestic routines will only bend so far, and ‘project solar’ has to fit around them.
Like the ‘rhythm track’ that musicians use to keep the beat consistent throughout a song, Dr Fox found that maintaining family routines took precedence.
“None of the households wanted to waste the solar power they were generating but equally its use had to fit within their routines and busy lives,” she writes.
“This is important to appreciate given that policy-makers and social-housing landlords may choose solar PV panels as part of a package of measures to support low-income communities facing spiralling energy costs.”
While the feed-in-tariff support that made this prosuming project possible has since been withdrawn, the UK government announced last year a solar PV scheme for 20,000 social-housing properties.
How to make solar cheaper and easier to use
Given that solar is a variable renewable - working when the sun shines - and there’s a greater demand for electricity in the evening, it’s fair to say there’s a battery-shaped hole in the market.
Or more specifically, an affordable solar battery hole. Home energy storage currently costs upwards of £2,000 (€2,230) according to Which? consumer magazine in the UK.
But a more affordable piece of tech is at hand: solar energy monitors. Dr Fox’s study is testament to what a difference real-time knowledge of solar power can make.
Halfway through the winter, the seven families were given a digital solar energy monitor which glowed green when more energy was being generated than consumed. It showed that even on cloudy days the panels could still be producing energy, and so was their cue to start using electricity.
The monitors are available at “a fraction” of the cost of batteries, so are another part of the puzzle for local authorities to consider, she says.
Solar communities? People want to share power
There was a final piece of feedback from the solar owners: their desire to share the energy with their neighbours.
“We’re not draining the power. I believe that probably more is going back to the grid than we’re using… The people that really need it [are here]… that’s where all the excess should go,” said Tony.
The households channelled this communal spirit where they could. With no system for retaining excess solar electricity on the estate, some took in extra laundry from friends, for example.
They were keen to share their knowledge too, co-producing a booklet for similar schemes and showing a willingness to become ‘solar ambassadors’.
Thinking locally, producing efficiently, and transitioning to a different way of working with energy; “It’s the kind of vision I hope will be happening as part of our net zero [journey] in years to come,” says Dr Fox.