Solar energy: What you need to know
Love the idea of generating your own power? Solar energy is a great way of saving money on your energy bills and reducing your reliance on mains electricity as well as being great for the planet. If you’re interested in taking a step towards solar energy, read on. We’ve put together a handy guide covering all the essentials you need to know.
Love the idea of generating your own power? Solar energy is a great way of saving money on your energy bills and reducing your reliance on mains electricity as well as being great for the planet.
Although installing solar panels on your roof can be expensive, and can take a while to pay for itself, the environmental benefit is huge and will greatly reduce your home’s carbon footprint whilst saving you on bills.
Ready to get started? If you’re interested in taking a step towards solar energy, read on. We’ve put together a handy guide covering all the essentials you need to know. We’ll look at what solar panels are, how solar panels work, how much they cost and how to find a professional installer.
What is solar energy?
Solar energy comes from sunlight. The sun produces ultraviolet (UV), visible and infrared rays of light, which we can convert into usable energy with the right technology. This is where solar panels come in.
Solar energy is a crucial source of free, renewable power which doesn’t harm the environment to produce. If globally, we can harness more of it, we can reduce our reliance on polluting fossil fuels.
How does solar energy work?
When light from the sun reaches a solar panel, it is converted into energy using a particular process.
This varies depending on the type of solar energy system being used. But generally speaking, it involves a reaction between the sun’s light and the silicon crystals on the surface of the solar panel. These panels are made up of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, which are made from semiconducting materials like silicon.
This produces an electric current, which can then be fed into the electrical systems in your home, storage batteries or the National Grid.
How do solar panels work?
There are a few different types of solar panels you can choose from. Most are photovoltaic (PV) solar panels that work in the same way as described above, but with different types of silicon, glass and other components.
The main types of solar panels include monocrystalline solar panels, which are highly efficient but expensive, and polycrystalline solar panels. These are cheaper but have a shorter working life and lower efficiency.
The pros and cons of solar panels
Solar panels have many more advantages than drawbacks. However, it’s still important to consider both pros and cons carefully before taking the plunge.
Let’s start with the benefits of solar energy:
- Eco-friendly: Solar panels produce renewable, sustainable and clean energy, which can help to reduce your home’s carbon footprint. In fact, the Energy Saving Trust estimates that the average home could reduce its carbon emissions by as much as 1.6 tonnes a year using solar PV panels.
- Reduce energy bills: Generating solar energy is free. So, over time, solar panels will pay for themselves in terms of savings on your energy bills.
- Potentially increase property value: A solar energy system can be very attractive to potential buyers, who can benefit from free renewable energy without having to cough up for the expense of getting them installed. It can also boost your home’s energy efficiency rating.
- Low maintenance costs.
Now, what about drawbacks? Here are just a couple of disadvantages of solar panels to consider:
- High initial cost: Solar panels aren’t cheap to buy and install, and it takes some time for the energy savings to outweigh the initial expense.
- Dependence on sunlight: Solar panels do work on cloudy days, but they don’t work at night. This means you’ll need to use a boiler or other power source sometimes unless you have a battery to store the solar energy gathered during the day.
How much do solar panels cost?
The cost of installing solar panels can vary, depending on the type of system you go for and how many panels you have on your roof. On average, it costs around £3,225 – £4,370 to have three panels installed. This shoots up to around £10,775 – £14,570 for 10 panels.
Take a look at our full guide to the cost of solar panel installation here.
How much can solar panels save you on your energy bills?
Solar energy systems are expensive to buy and install. So, you need to weigh up this initial expense with the savings on your energy bills, to see how long it’ll take for your solar panels to pay for themselves.
The Energy Saving Trust has a handy online calculator to help you work this out. But to give you an idea, the average savings per year add up to around £100 – £240 if you live in London, and from £95 – £230 a year if you live in Manchester.
What solar panel grants are available?
There aren’t currently any government or other grants to help you cover the cost of buying and installing your solar panels. However, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out, as the government may well replace its Green Homes Grant scheme which ended in March 2021.
You can, however, access the smart export guarantee (SEG) scheme. This is a scheme run by the Government which issues payments for any solar energy you ‘export’ back to the national grid.
Energy suppliers offer their own tariffs which pay a set rate per kWh of electricity you export, so you can shop around for the best deal.
According to MoneySavingExpert, you could save up to £360 a year. This can help you recoup the initial costs of installing your solar panels more quickly.
How to install solar panels
It’s really important to use a trusted, specialist installer for your solar panels. Choose one with experience in the system you’ve chosen, and in installations involving your kind of roof. Find a qualified, certified solar panel installer here on Checkatrade.
Tips for maximising solar panel efficiency
- Opt for a high-efficiency type of solar panels – they may be a little more expensive, but they can be worth it.
- Position your solar panels on a south-facing roof and make sure they’re unshaded.
- Have your solar panels regularly cleaned.
- Consider installing a battery, so you can store energy captured during the day and use it at night.
And remember, it’s really important to use a professional solar panel installer, and the same goes for maintenance.
Can I still switch energy suppliers if I have solar panels?
Yes, you can switch suppliers whenever you want to (provided you’re not locked into a fixed-term contract). You don’t have to stick to the same energy provider you were with when you got your panels fitted.
What maintenance do solar panels need?
You’ll need to get your solar panels professionally cleaned every six months or at least once a year. A build-up of dirt and grime can affect their efficiency.
You’ll also need to replace the inverter around once every 10 years. Otherwise, apart from an annual service should you want to arrange it, your solar panels should last at least 25 years.
Is my home suitable for solar panels?
For your home to be a good fit for solar panels, you need two key things – enough space, and a roof that faces the right direction.
The more space you have, the more panels you can install and the more power you can generate. If you have around 10-20 m2, you should be able to produce enough power for 20-45% of your household needs.
Your roof should ideally have a pitch angle of around 30-40 degrees and face South, although East or West-facing roofs can still receive enough light.
Do I need planning permission for solar panels?
You shouldn’t need planning consent to install solar panels, as they usually fall within Permitted Development rules. But it’s always a good idea to check with your local authority, especially if you live within a conservation area or in a listed building.