Solar panels – are they worth installing?

By Nikkie Thatcher

- Last updated on GMT

Should I install solar panels at my pub?

Related tags Social responsibility Technology Multi-site pub operators Pubco + head office

Solar panels can be a significant investment but what is the process around getting them installed? We’ve spoken with operators who have them in place at their sites to find out their experiences.
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Tom Barber is the director and owner of the Barn at Berryfields in Coventry – an independent a la carte restaurant, private function room, artisan bakery, butchery and café.

The business focuses on preparing and sharing handmade, home-grown, local food, concentrating on self-sufficiency.

He installed solar panels on the roof of a barn buildings around a decade ago. Barber said: “We were consuming a lot of electric at the time. We looked at our high electricity consumption and we had an appropriate south facing roof. The numbers we did at the time made sense.”

At that time, the Government was running a scheme, designed to boost the country’s green credentials.

The Feed-in Tariff was designed by the Government to promote the update of renewable and low-carbon electricity generation, according to the description on Ofgem’s website.

“When we put them in, they were significantly more expensive than they are now."

It was introduced in 2010 and required participating licensed electricity suppliers to make payments on electricity generated and exported by accredited installations.

There were two types of participants on the scheme – generators, which were the owners of accredited installations and licensees, which were licensed electric suppliers who registered applications and made the Feed-in Tariff payments for the electricity provided. Payments were based on meter readings generators submitted to the licensee.

While the scheme closed in 2019, meaning no new applications could be accredited, those who were customers of the scheme before 2019 remained on it and receive their agreed payments.

The Barn at Berryfields was on the scheme when the panels were installed and therefore have benefitted from it.

Barber said: “When we put them in, they were significantly more expensive than they are now. Before the energy crisis, solar panels had dropped down [in price].

“The Government used to pay you the Feed-in Tariff to put in solar panels, incentivising people to put them in.

"When our solar panels are buzzing away with nice sunshine on them, all our kitchens are running off the sun’s rays.”

“It made you less reliant on the grid so it eased the burden there and went towards the Government’s green push, about 10 years ago.”

The implementation of the panels helps the firm’s aims to be reliant on themselves. “The solar panels allowed us on a sunny day, to be entirely self sufficient. It’s not about heat, it is about light. If a January day is nice and sunny, it still has the same effect [as a summers’ day],” Barber said. 

“Because of investing in the solar panels, we’ve got five different size kitchens that are induction.

“We chose that so when our solar panels are buzzing away with nice sunshine on them, all our kitchens are running off the sun’s rays.”

However, there were some obstacles to overcome when it came to installing solar panels, according to Barber.

“One of the barriers to entry is planning permission. Typically, roof mounted is what businesses will look at but you can also do field-based panels however, these tend to get more of a push back from a planning perspective,” he said.

Planning rules

According to the Planning Portal, solar panels must be sited to minimise the impact on the external appearance of the building and amenity of the area, should be removed once no longer needed and they can be allowed under permitted development rights.

There are certain criteria it must meet including panels installed on a wall or pitched roof should project no more than 200mm from the wall surface or roof slope.

If on a flat roof, the highest part of the equipment should not be more than 1m above the highest part of the roof (excluding the chimney). Also, if the panels are on a roof, the must not be within 1m of the externa ledge.

Furthermore, panels cannot be installed on a listed building or on a building that is within the grounds of a listed building.

For standalone panels, only the first installation will be permitted development and further installations will require planning permission from the local authority.

Other criteria includes no part should be higher than 4m, the installation should be at least 5m from the boundary of the property and the size should be no more than 9sq metres or 3m wide by 3m deep.

The same rule applies around panels are not to be installed within the boundary of a listed building.

“There are some important maintenance aspects to take into account."

But, Barber outlined how suppliers can help with most of the aspects of installation should operators be unsure about positioning.

He said: “There’s a bit of work to do with the solar panel company you choose. There are a lot of reputable, really good companies out there who will hold your hand, come and do the survey, tell you what you need, ask your energy usage.

“They will also assess the building you want to put the panels on and say if the roof is strong enough to sustain the panels or if you need to do any additional work on them.

“We had to put in some extra support to hold the weight of the panels. They have come down in weight and price now though.”

Another aspect to take into account is the regular upkeep of the panels themselves, he highlighted.

Barber added: “There are some important maintenance aspects to take into account. You have to keep them clean as rural locations could mean dust or being near a busy road could also mean dust and you can end up with a film over them so you need to clean them safely.

“The best time to install them is at the very start of the weather getting better such as March so you’ve got the best months of solar production.

“You’ve also got the capital expenditure. There isn’t an immediate payback and [we’ve found] the return on investment is typically two to five years, depending on the amount of energy you use and how competitively priced you get the panels as following the energy crisis, the price has ticked up a little.”

The challenges of implementing solar power is something multiple operator Mark Holden also highlighted when he outlined his journey with installing 45 panels on the roof of one of his sites – the Victoria in Threemilestone, Truro, Cornwall – in 2021.

The Victoria in Threemilestone has 45 panels on the roof.

Company journey

He said: “Our journey was all about trying to become more sustainable as a business and as a company.

“We have had it on our radar to put in solar panels for quite a while. We operate leased and tenanted pubs so the initial hurdle was a sizeable investment on someone else’s building.

“There are lots of things we needed to address and be very open with our landlords about. The first jump was gauging, getting the buy in and going into partnership with the freehold owners of the property.

“[Also], from a health and safety point of view, if we invested 100% on someone else’s roof, what happens if one rips off, who is liable?”

“Our biggest step and my number one piece of advice for anyone considering it is engagement."

Getting landlords and staff involved in the process is one top tip Holden revealed, helping make the process smoother for all.

He added: “We had to be bold enough to tell our landlords this is where we wanted to be then looking at the barriers and how we overcome them together to try and create a sustainable business for us and them, should we not be involved in that business later down the line.

“Our biggest step and my number one piece of advice for anyone considering it is engagement. Go and speak to your landlord first and try to create a business model as a partnership.”

It has also given a boost to staff working at the pub, Holden outlined: “The team love it and we have been able to get the buy in from staff, having a more sustainable business with higher engagement in the team.

“They have access to the apps to see how much has been generated from the solar panels.”

Holden stated how much it had reduced the pub’s usage on days when the sun has been shining and the impact of panels on the business.

He said: “Part of what we probably underestimated our actual usage. Our stats and figures looked great, when the sun was shining and we were operating but when the evening kicks in and you’re not generating [electricity], that brings down the value.

“[But], on a good day, after 24 hours of operation, the average saving [from having solar panels], probably works out at about a 12% reduction.

“We have had a change of strategy on how we are operating such as when we would have combi ovens on cleaning cycles.”

However, Barber laid out the benefits of using solar panels, despite the hurdles to overcome initially.

“In order to be a massive help to hospitality, the technology has to come further."

He said: “Does it reduce energy bills? Yes it does because when they are installed, they will be hard wired into your incoming electric.

“When the sun us there and energy is coming from the panels into your on-site distribution board, it immediately stops pulling anything from the grid and from the solar panels when the clouds come over, it immediately switches back to mains.”

Moreover, Holden outlined how solar panels were part of shifting towards a net zero aim but there was more work to be done.

He said: “I don’t think solar panels are 100% of the answer and can’t be for a business like ours because of our evening operation.

“Our consumption as a business is too big but solar panels can be a small step to assisting a larger movement towards net zero.

“In order to be a massive help to hospitality, the technology has to come further, the amount from one panel has to be more because we are huge consumers of energy.”

The Morning Advertiser has launched the Green Initiative, which is supported by Molson Coors Beverage Company and Brewfitt.​​

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