The ultimate beginner's guide to solar panels
By OVO Energy Tuesday 09 June 2015
The sun is a valuable source of renewable energy, and using solar panels to harness its power yields lots of benefits, including free energy and free money! Read on to find out how solar power works and how you can take advantage of the government 2015 solar panel grants.
What is solar power?
Solar panels are groups of photovoltaic (PV) cells which, when exposed to the sun, turn light into electricity. This is a plentiful, renewable source of energy which even works in the grey old UK, as solar panels don’t need direct sunlight to function – thankfully for us!
The type of solar panel you see on roofs are technically called photovoltaic solar panels, (also known as solar PV). These panels are made up of lots of solar cells which can convert sunlight into electricity, which is then fed into the building on which the panel is installed.
How do solar panels work?
A solar system is made up of several components, including a panel of solar cells, an inverter and a generation meter. Each solar cell contains two wafer-thin layers of silicon crystal on top of one another. The top layer has been treated so that its atoms are unstable and it has too many electrons, while the bottom layer has also been treated, but this time has too few electrons. The electrons want to move from the top layer to the bottom, but they can’t until the cells are exposed to sunlight.
When light hits the top layer the electrons become ‘excited’ and start to move to the bottom layer, and once electrons move together in the same direction, electricity is created. Two metal contacts are placed on either side of the silicon layers to create a circuit.
Electricity generated by solar panels is direct current (DC), whereas the electricity used in buildings is alternating current (AC), so the electricity has to run through an inverter before it can be fed into the building.
Can I get solar panels on my home?
The majority of UK homes are suitable for solar, but the best homes are ones with south-facing roofs with a pitch of 30-40 degrees. We’d advise against installing on a north facing roof but you might find that an east or west-facing roof still works well, although expect to generate 25% less energy.
Your roof also needs to be strong enough to house the panels and you’ll need space in your loft (or similar) to house the inverter. Getting a qualified installer to check your house before making any decision is a must!
What is the Feed-in Tariff?
In April 2010 the government introduced the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) where the government pays you for the energy you produce.
There are two elements to the Feed-in Tariff. Firstly, there’s the ‘generation tariff’, where the government pays you a set amount for each unit (kilowatt hour or kWh) of electricity that your solar panels generate, whether you use it yourself or not.
The second element is the ‘export tariff’, where you can sell any extra units you don’t use back to your energy supplier. You’ll earn around five pence per unit and you can sell back up to half of the units you generate (the exact amount you’ll get is liable to change every time a new tariff is introduced, which can be up to every six months).
So there are two financial incentives for having solar panels – not to mention the money you’ll save on electricity bills. The money you receive is tax free, and payments will rise in line with inflation - AMAZING!
Luckily for this home, solar panels don't need direct sunlight to function!
How much will solar panels save me?
The exact amount you could earn will depend on a variety of factors, including the size of your solar installation and the way you use the energy you generate. The scheme applies for 20 years once you’ve signed up.
The calculations can be a bit tricky, but let’s assume that the average UK home has a 3.5kW installation on its roof. This will cost around £5,300 (although expect to pay more if you have any ‘tricky’ installation issues or want a bigger system). We estimate that a 3.5kW panel in southern England will return about £640 to your hip pocket in the first year and you’ll pay off your investment in around eight years.
The amount you save will depend on where you live in the UK (i.e. the amount of sun your home gets), the Feed-in Tariffs you are eligible for, how much generated electricity your home will consume and how much you currently pay for electricity. It’s a bit complicated but many providers offer calculators to determine an estimate. Solar panels last for up to 30 years so they’re a great investment!
Is 2015 the year I should buy solar panels?
Solar PV modules (the main component to a solar panel) have reduced in cost from £50.13 per watt in 1977 to £0.24p per watt in 2014 and are getting cheaper every year, but it’s the government Feed-in Tariffs you have to watch to find the right time to buy. The next Feed-in Tariff reduction will take place on 1 July 2015 where tariffs will reduce by about 3.5%. Purchasing solar in the weeks leading up a tariff drop will normally get you the best returns, so start planning now if you’re in the market for solar.
What’s the next step?
As with any big investment, make sure you get several quotes from providers before making any decisions, and ensure that the company you choose is a certified installer (find out more about the Microgeneration Certification scheme here) and perhaps go with a strongly recommended provider (yougen.co.uk is a good place for provider reviews). The current Feed-in Tariff rates are applicable to installations before 30 June 2015 – be aware that rates may change after this period. Check the Energy Saving Trust’s Feed-In Tariff page for more information on current rates.
What about free solar panels?
Some companies offer free solar panels to eligible customers, which does sound too good to be true. And it partly is, because they will keep any money earned from the Feed-In Tariff. However, you’ll still make savings on your energy bill by using the ‘free energy’ the panels generate, and the company will pay for maintenance and servicing, so technically you won’t spend a penny while still enjoying some of the benefits of renewable energy. It’s a great option if you don’t have the money upfront and don’t envisage having it in the foreseeable future.
If you’d like more free impartial advice on anything from tips on energy efficiency and renewable energy to how to apply for grants and financial support just give us a call on 0800 408 6601 (mobile 0117 934 1999) to speak with an energy efficiency expert or you can email us.