Did you know the sun delivers more energy to earth in an hour through light and heat than the world uses in an entire year?
Solar panels are a great way for homeowners to harness some of this energy which can be used around the house.
Given soaring gas and electricity bills, the thought of generating your own power has seldom been more appealing. Of course, installing solar panels isn’t the easiest or cheapest home improvement to make, but it may be worth considering – particularly as it can end up making you savings in the long run.
In this article, we take you through everything you need to know about solar panels and whether they might be a good fit for your home.
How do solar panels work?
Solar panels are made up of ‘photovoltaic’ cells, sandwiched between layers of conductive material (usually silicon). The photons contained in sunlight hit these cells, creating an electric field and generating a current. This current is then passed through an inverter, and can then be fed directly into the home, with any surplus going to the National Grid.
While solar panels generate more power on sunny days, they can still work when out of direct sunlight and even when it’s overcast. As long as it’s light enough to see, solar panels can generate electricity. Solar panels respond to light, not heat, meaning they will still generate plenty of electricity on cold sunny days.
Can I install solar panels on my home?
The biggest deciding factors as to whether you can install solar panels are space and money.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, an average solar panel system will take up around 25 square metres of roof space.
South-facing roofs are the most ideal for solar panels, as they allow the system to generate the most power. East and west-facing systems will generate between 15 and 20% less power, but can still be an option. However, the Energy Saving Trust does not recommend installing a solar panel system on a north-facing roof.
You’ll also need to consider potential obstructions to sunlight in the surrounding area, such as trees, other buildings, chimneys and so on. Unshaded space with direct access to sunlight is preferable, but some solar systems can use ‘optimisers’ to minimise the impact of shading.
How much do solar panels cost?
The average domestic solar panel system costs around £6,500 according to the Energy Saving Trust, though the exact cost will depend on the size of the array, ease of roof access and the kind of panels you use.
For example, panels that sit on top of the roof are cheaper, while panels that are integrated into the roof itself are a bit more costly. Even more expensive are so-called solar tiles, which replace your roof tiles altogether and are designed to maintain the design of the house. They otherwise work the same way, however.
As with anything, it makes sense to shop around and get quotes from a few providers before you go ahead and get a system installed.
Can I save money by installing solar panels?
The first way that solar panels can help you save money in the long run is by reducing your energy bills. If you’re covering a portion of your regular electricity usage with your own solar panel system then you’re naturally not going to need as much from your energy provider. With the cost of energy currently at an all-time high, this kind of saving could be significant in the long-term.
How much you save will come down to how much you normally spend on electricity of course, which factors in how much time you spend at home and where in the country you live. The Energy Saving Trust calculates that a London household could save between £170 and £415 a year on their bills from having a solar system installed, depending on whether you are out for most of the day or home all day.
However, you can also earn additional money through solar power. Any surplus electricity that you generate – that is, extra power that you don’t need – gets sent to the National Grid to be used by someone else. If you want, you can claim a Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) to compensate you for this. The SEG was introduced in March 2019 to replace the Feed-in Tariff scheme in Great Britain to provide financial support to small-scale renewable generators (if you installed panels before March 2019, you should still be receiving export payments from the Feed-in Tariff scheme).
Your solar panel system will need to be registered by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) in order for you to receive SEG payments, as they are the main quality assurance body in the UK for renewable and low-carbon energy. You can search for a contractor to set up your solar panel system using the search tool on their website. All contractors listed on their site are MCS-certified, meaning they have to abide by the Scheme’s quality and safety standards and meet Office of Fair Trading (OFT) requirements. They will also be able to help you register your system with the MCS.
The SEG is not available in Northern Ireland, but there are other organisations that will compensate you for the power you produce.
Here are the average savings you can make on your energy bills per year in different parts of Great Britain, depending on how often you are at home on average and whether you are claiming a SEG or not.
|Out all day until 6pm (no SEG)||Home all day (no SEG)||Out all day until 6pm (with SEG)||Home all day (with SEG)|
(Data from the Energy Saving Trust).
Therefore, depending on your location, energy consumption habits and whether you claim SEG, you could well end up recovering the cost of installing solar panels if you remain in the property for long enough.
For more tips on dealing with energy costs in the current crisis, read our article The energy bills crisis: what can you do about soaring costs?
What are the other benefits of having solar panels?
There are several other reasons why solar power is becoming increasingly popular across the UK.
First and foremost, it’s an example of clean, renewable energy. As climate change becomes a more pressing issue, many people are interested in finding ways to cut their carbon footprint. Solar power is one such way to do this, and is already saving the UK hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon every year.
Additionally, solar panels are very quiet and do not contribute to noise pollution, and do not create a disturbance for biodiversity in rural areas. They need very little maintenance, and can be cleaned by rainfall if set at an angle. Panels tend to last for at least 25 years, though the inverter in the system may need replacing at some point.
They are also very safe. Of course, any system with a large amount of electricity running through it requires a degree of caution, but the materials themselves are harmless and do not produce any kind of leakage or fumes.
How much energy do solar panels create?
A single panel in a normal residential solar system will produce around 250 to 400 watts of electricity per hour, although this will depend on placement, weather conditions, size and capacity. A regular solar system will probably not generate enough electricity to power your home by itself. However, they will probably be able to cover a few key household appliances, such as fridge-freezers, washing machines, TVs or computers.
Do I need permission to install solar panels?
Solar panels generally don’t require planning permission, but some exceptions do apply, such as if you live in a listed building or national park. You should check with your local planning office if you are unsure.
You also need to let your Distribution Network Operator (DNO) know that you are planning on installing a system, as they are responsible for bringing electricity into your home.
Where to find out more
If you think you might be interested in solar panels for your home, you can go to the Microgeneration Certification Scheme’s website to get started. In addition to the contractor search tool, you will be able to find out more about different kinds of renewable energy and the Scheme’s own quality and safety standards for solar panel systems.