Beginner's Guide to Solar, Storage and Saving Energy - Where to Start?

I have talked before about retrofitting solar technology in our 100 years+ old property, which has been ongoing for 10 years. Suddenly it's Autumn 2022 and we're in the middle of an energy crisis. Understandably, lots of people are now interested in solar technology for their homes and businesses. I have been asked: is there a Beginner's Guide to Solar Energy? Where to start? If that describes how you are feeling, this post is for you.

Should I start with Solar Panels?

So with all the technology available, where should you start? In our case, we started with solar panels, then we got an electric car, then a heat pump, then storage batteries. However, if we had our time again, we would get solar panels and storage batteries installed together first.

Why are Energy Storage Batteries such a Game Changer?

Alpha ESS Battery Storage

Storing the energy you generate changes everything. It enables you to store the energy you produce and don't use during the day, then use it at night when the sun isn't shining. That makes the payback time on the equipment, including the solar panels, much quicker. And with every price increase that happens, that payback period gets shorter and shorter.

We couldn't have done that in our situation, because storage batteries weren't an option for us 10 years ago. And when they first became available, they were prohibitively expensive. But solar and renewable energy technology is changing all the time.

Our property runs on a combination of solar energy topped up with cheap rate energy overnight from the grid, and the extent to which we use grid energy depends on the time of year, how much the sun is shining and for how long.

Can I charge Storage Batteries up with Cheaper Energy at Night?

Yes you can charge your batteries up from the grid, not just the sun. So if you are on a cheap energy tariff at night, like Economy 7 or Octopus Go, in effect you can run your property on that cheap rate 24/7 if you have big enough energy storage batteries.

You can of course export the excess energy you don't use from your solar panels to the national grid, but you will be paid a small amount (if anything) per kwh for it, and then be paying many times more than that to effectively buy it back. Hence storage batteries make such a difference to the running costs of your property and the payback period of your solar panels. I would even go so far as to say that investing in the batteries if you have Economy 7, even if you don't go solar straight away, is worth considering for running-costs reasons in these mad cost-of-living-crisis times, but that's purely based on our experience and it might not be right for your circumstances.

Storing Excess Solar Energy in your Water Tank


We also have an iBoost fitted in the cupboard where the water cylinder is located. This starts working once the batteries are fully charged from the sun. It allows us to then store the surplus energy in the form of hot water in the water tank. If that's 'full' (ie the water is hot enough) too, which can happen on very long sunny days, we then trickle charge the electric car. So every bit of energy we generate gets saved. Trickle charging means we plug the car into a standard plug and any excess charge goes to the car, rather than the grid. It's a slow process, but every little counts.

Will Solar Panels Work in a Power Cut?

For safety reasons, solar panels won't work in a power cut. So if you plan to get a quote for battery storage, you need to make clear to the installer that you want the battery to kick in if there is a power cut. Solar panels alone don't allow you to do that, batteries can but you need to specify you want that technology otherwise you may not get it. That was important for us, because it allows us to keep our business running in the event of a power cut as well as reducing our carbon footprint and running costs. It was the primary reason we wanted storage batteries.

Payback on Solar Panels and Batteries

Our solar panels cost approximately £8k and paid for themselves in under 8 years. Solar panels and batteries together would have paid back a lot faster than that. Though batteries weren't even a thing when we got our panels and then, when they launched, they were prohibitively expensive. Our small solar panel set up would cost considerably less to install today than it did almost 10 years ago, so I would have thought a quicker payback would be very achievable but, again, it would depend on your circumstances. 

Massive Energy Savings with Solar Panels and Storage Batteries

In June 2022 our energy bill for running our home, car and business was £59.73. Including the standing charge and VAT. I'm not sure people believe me, but that is honestly true.
This is for electricity only, because we had our gas supply removed last year when we had a heat pump installed to replace a gas boiler. That is because we learned that, if you don't use any gas at all because you've had it capped off, you still pay the daily standing charge unless you pay to have the meter removed. And, of course, the standing charge keeps increasing too. So it was worth it for us to pay to have it removed. You can organise that through your energy supplier.

In the depths of winter, we won't achieve bills as low as this because the sun doesn't shine as much. Plus the hours of sunlight are obviously less, even when it does shine.

Other Energy Savings

The 'big wins' are not the only things you can do around your property to conserve energy, of course. Once our Smart Meter was installed, we were able to properly see how much energy our oven was using. Answer: a lot. I have been contemplating an Instant Pot for some time but didn't know whether I needed another piece of kitchen gadgetry. It felt such an expensive indulgence. Then a friend got one, and she advised us to really look at it because of how little energy it uses. We've been monitoring that and it has been a revelation. The 'small' 5.7 litre one uses a third or less energy than an oven on the bake/roast setting and, because it's a small space to heat, it's quicker. There is a larger 8 litre Instant Pot too, if you are regularly feeding lots of people.

Instant Pot for energy saving in the kitchen
I will do a separate post about this. How the Instant Pot has helped us enormously through the summer keeping the kitchen cool, how I've been preserving allotment harvests with it through pressure cooking, dehydrating and all the rest. But the bottom line is: the Instant Pot is the difference between us staying off the grid when the sun is shining whilst cooking and not, because it creates barely any spike in energy usage compared with an oven. Plus that means it uses hardly any energy at night when we're conserving the solar energy we generated in the day. The oven uses far too much energy to do that. Because of the energy savings, it has already paid for itself. I have no idea why the manufacturers don't make a bigger deal of this feature, which to me is a bigger selling point than all the Instant Pot Duo Crisp's 20 billion features (or whatever they are) put together.

Other Energy Saving devices we have incorporated into our shop and our home include TP Link Smart Plugs which help ensure we turn off everything in the shop and house at night rather than leaving them on standby, sensor lights in the shop so they go off when there's nobody in there, a push-button light switch timer at the top of the cellar stairs in case we forget to turn the light off down there.... on second thoughts, I'll do a separate post about the other things we've done too otherwise this will be the longest post ever.

Coordinating the installation of Solar Energy Devices and Meter Changes

Because we've implemented everything over a long period, the work involved in coordinating it all hasn't seemed that big of a deal. But it's worth bearing in mind that in the past 5 years alone we've gone from a standard meter to an economy 7 meter, and then a Smart meter. We've had our gas capped off and our meter removed. And that's without the actual installation works themselves, which included going from a combi boiler (no water tank) to a heat pump (water tank). If you've had any dealings with utility companies, you will appreciate that coordinating the meter changes and capping off the gas and having that meter removed was a challenge in itself. A Smart Meter ended up being something we couldn't avoid because it was a pre-requisite for us to access the very competitive night tariffs, though an Economy 7 meter still worked well for us for a long time.

We did it all as and when we could afford it... and as and when I could face dealing with yet another energy supplier :) And it has all been totally worth the effort.

Business Grant for Solar Storage Batteries 

We were able to get a 40% business grant to help us with the solar battery purchase and installation. The organisation that helped us to do that was LOCASE (Low Carbon in the South and East) who work with the Government. They will have grants available for businesses in the South and East until April 2023 at time of writing this, so now is the time to contact them to find out if you would be eligible for help, assuming your part of the country is covered by them. If not, I strongly recommend asking around as to whether there is a similar organisation operating in your part of the country as, unfortunately, there is no centralised point to get this kind of help at time of writing this. The application process was understandably paperwork heavy, but it was worth the effort and the fantastic team at LOCASE did most of the form filling for us. They needed 3 quotes from us, the procedure may differ depending on the grant you're applying for,

Is there an Energy Specialist I can go to for advice?

I have to stress we are not experts in this area at all. We've done everything bit by bit over 10 years, as and when our financial position has allowed us to do the next bit. We haven't ever known the ideal way to do it and we still don't know if our set-up is the optimum one. I very much doubt it would be if we were starting from scratch now but, in truth, I don't know. 

Someone asked me recently whether we took advice from an Energy Expert. As at today, we have yet to find anyone who knows everything about all of it, especially when you start throwing heat pumps, wind turbines and electric cars (in relation to vehicle to home/vehicle to grid technology) into the mix. We would never claim to know about everything that is out there, we only know what we've had installed. 

Our experience says that if you are considering retrofitting a property with solar panels, storage batteries, heat pumps, wind turbines... you need to do a lot of the knowledge building and research yourself and discover what works and what doesn't through trial and error. And you need lots patience, because this is still pretty new technology and it doesn't always go smoothly first time. But for a £59 utility bill in 2022 for my home, business and car: I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

Is now a good time to start?

We had to make a decision to go for it and start, otherwise, we would have deliberated for years and probably never have begun. My Nan leaving me money in her will enabled us to install solar panels, and that was our impetus to get going so we were very fortunate. The reality is that, if you don't do this for (say) 2 years, there may be other options open to you because that's the nature of this industry. However, in these days of rapidly increasing energy costs, I still believe the time to get going is now to future-proof your home and/or your business, rather than wait any longer. 

There is a Chinese proverb which says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” I honestly believe this is as true for fitting solar energy solutions to your home and business as it is for planting trees.The fine detail of what is suitable for your property will depend on a variety of things including the angle of your roof, how much of it would generate solar and whether you have a suitable area inside for storage batteries - ours are in the cellar. Nowadays you can fit solar panels to a wall or ground, anywhere you have a suitable space, though it's important to bear in mind that you may need planning permission for panels not fitted on a roof. No doubt there will be other options too. One of the reasons we started down this road was because we wanted to reduce the running costs of this property for later in life, so that energy bills wouldn't be huge when we wanted to retire. Little did we know what was coming of course.

Are we happy with our set-up?

The company who have been helping us for 10 years are Ohm Energy. They are based down the road from us in Eastbourne and cover a wide area in the South East. They have just helped us to double our battery storage, which gives you an idea of how happy we are with the set up. We were able to add batteries because we chose Alpha ESS batteries which are modular, meaning we were able to start small and then add more later. Most decent companies will come and talk to you without charge if they are in the area, and will tell you if your property is suitable for this technology. Unfortunately, as with everything where money is involved, cowboys still operate in this space. Be prepared to be patient as Ohm, and companies like them, are all absolutely snowed under with enquiries at the moment because of the rapidly increasing price of energy. Suddenly a lot of people who have deliberated for years are now wanting quotes. Keep plugging away, it is worth the effort to get somebody in to talk to you.

Talk to the right people...

When considering a solar installation, heat pump, batteries or any of this, you will find lots of newspaper articles and people on social media rubbishing it all. We have noticed that as energy costs rise, so do the volume of newspaper articles and shared pieces on social media about how it doesn't work. If you're considering embarking on a journey like this , we recommend you talk to the people who have done it. I have to say that the vast majority of what I read in the mainstream media differs completely from our real-life experience.

Isn't Solar Energy for Rich People, or a Luxury of the Middle Classes?

Just as articles rubbishing solar energy and electric cars are on the increase, so are claims that solar energy is only for the rich. That such set-ups are a luxury of the middle classes. I'm here to tell you: we're not remotely rich. Of course if we decided to do all this in one go tomorrow, it would cost a lot of money. But we have implemented it all over 10 years as and when we could afford it, or when a grant or trial became available. Because they do, all the time. Do keep your eyes open for opportunities. Our heat pump was fitted for nothing in exchange for supplying data about its performance, through the Ovo Energy Zero Carbon Heating Trial. The grant we received from LOCASE paid for almost half of our first battery installation. The solar panels were paid for by my lovely Nan, and our small installation would cost considerably less now than it did then. The solar panels paid for themselves within 8 years, the batteries will be considerably faster than that. We have, in effect, paid upfront for energy bill reductions now and for years into the future. Just as importantly, they have reduced the carbon footprint of our home and business, however the cost savings were most definitely our primary reason for doing it. I am not belittling the money angle when I say all this. I totally understand how this is a real barrier for many people, as it was for us in the early days of our business. But my point is that deals, grants and help are all out there. And the money you spend now is not like spending it on a holiday, or a car. It will repay you multiple times over for years to come. Our solar panels are generating as much energy today as they were when they were installed 10 years ago,

If you read such things and you're in the market for this technology, I urge you to do your research outside the main stream media, and find reputable installers with great references. Invariably, as with my 'talk to the right people' point, articles about how none of this works are usually written by people who have no experience of the technology, have a vested interest in things not changing, or who are simply repeating what others have said. They are entitled to their opinion, and that differs significantly from our real life experience. We are living proof that such set ups can significantly reduce the carbon footprint and energy bills for a home and business, even when your property is over 100 years old.


The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, Small Changes that Make a Big Difference - Jen Gale

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster - Bill Gates

Ideas on Growing Your Business Sustainably - Wayne Toppen


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