How solar panels reduce your carbon footprint

01 December 2020 | Renewable Energy Hub

solar panels

Installing solar panels is a good way to lower your carbon footprint. Solar energy is a natural, renewable source because it can be replenished unlike fossil fuels which are finite. Solar energy produces little or no emissions when it’s converted to electricity. That’s why more and more people are investing in solar to power their homes. Find out what this wonderfully green energy source could do for your home…  

Reducing your carbon footprint (the solar way)

Residential solar PV systems can give your home all the electricity it needs. The Energy Saving Trust estimates the average UK home with a solar PV system installed could reduce carbon emissions by 1.3 to 1.6 tonnes per year depending on where you live in the UK.

To give you a clearer idea of what these numbers mean, 1.3 tonnes of carbon emissions is equivalent to the amount of CO2 emissions that come from using 536 gallons of petrol or charging 607,904 smartphones. In fact, a standard solar PV system in the UK will avoid 39 tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years which is equivalent to growing 2,365 tree seedlings for 10 years. 

All the green energy you need 

Fortunately, for those of us living in the UK (where the sun doesn’t always shine) solar cells still work on cloudy days – although less electricity is generated. The Met Office reported that April 2020 was one of the sunniest Aprils on record, with the solar industry reporting its highest ever production of electricity at 12:30 on 20 April.

Generally speaking, a 3kw or 4kw solar panel array will be able to produce enough energy to power a home containing a family of four or five people. A 4kw system will, on average, generate around 3,400kwh of electricity per year which should be enough to cope with most of your electricity needs. 3, 400kwh of electricity equates to 4,857 hours use of the washing machine or 1,880 hours of boiling the kettle! And you could sell back energy to the grid too   find out more in our guide to heating grants and how to finance green home improvements.

There are many advantages to installing solar panels. For those people who don’t have access to the National Grid and are living without electricity solar power can be life-changing and for many solar power will mean cheaper electricity and a welcome independence from the grid.  For some though the biggest benefit will be that they are massively reducing their carbon footprint. 

Does a solar PV system have a carbon footprint?

Like any manufactured product, solar panels have a carbon footprint. The good news is that the industry has been working hard to lower this as much as possible – refining everything from materials to manufacture.

Since the inception of solar panels energy engineers have been improving the solar panel design to make them more efficient. The average power output of a standard 72-cell multi-silicon solar module was around 290 watts in 2010. In 2020, consumers can expect at least 345 watts at one-tenth of the 2010 price.

Other developments include the use of perovskites which in a single layer can theoretically achieve efficiencies of 33% compared to silicon solar cells which have a maximum potential efficiency of around 29%. These efficiencies can help to reduce the carbon footprint of a solar PV system even more.

The production of solar panels is also being made more efficient all the time, lowering their carbon footprint even further. Put simply, the impact of electricity from solar panels has nowhere near the impact of electricity generated from gas or coal in terms of carbon emissions.

Although solar PV emits about four times more carbon emissions than wind power and sits at the top of the list of the renewables carbon emissions list, it still only emits 5% of the emissions of coal without carbon capture and storage and 20% of the emissions of coal with CCS. The emissions produced by electricity from gas are still ten times higher than emissions produced by a kWh of solar electricity.

An energy storage system, also called a home or solar battery, though expensive, allows you to make the most of your solar PV system by capturing electricity so you can use it at another time. For example, you can store the electricity your solar panels generate during the day and use it at night.

If you’re storing your solar-generated energy in a battery, it means more of your electricity is used where it’s made – it doesn’t have to travel anywhere, which is way more efficient. It also has the potential for one component of the system (namely the inverter) to be ‘dual purpose’ – so it can act as a gateway to the battery as well as a one way ‘DC to AC’ converter. It’s all clever stuff. 

Getting the most out of your solar panels

As long as your solar panels are fitted correctly, you won’t notice any difference in your electricity supply. Your system should switch seamlessly between electricity from your panels to your supply from the National Grid.

You can even use your solar panels alongside a normal energy tariff, without having to notify your energy company – you’ll simply use less electricity from the grid and pay lower bills. But don’t forget to shop around to make sure your tariff is the best out there. 

Other carbon-saving tips include using more electricity during the day (when your solar panels are most effective). Or, if you’re usually out during the day, you could use inbuilt timers on appliances like washing machines and dishwashers.

And, as we’ve mentioned above, you could install a solar battery or energy storage system to store electricity generated during the day. There’s also the option of combining solar panels with other renewable technologies such as heat pumps and thermal panels.

Read our practical guide on air source heat pumps and how they work

When it comes to maintenance, your solar panels will need to be cleaned regularly – you can buy solar panel cleaning kits or install automated cleaners that are a bit like sprinkler systems. There’s also the option to hire a cleaning company to do the hard work for you! Either way, it’s all about keeping your solar tech working as efficiently as possible. 

Thinking about expanding your home? Take a look at our complete guide to loft conversions.

Solar energy for all

There are many things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint – turning off lights when not in the room, taking shorter showers, and draught-proofing your home, to name a few. But the marvellous thing about solar energy is that it is available across the world for everyone to use.

Not only have solar panels increased in efficiency in the last decade but solar photovoltaics (PV) has seen the sharpest cost decline of any electricity technology. In 2010, a 4kW solar PV installation cost approximately £20,000. The most recent cost estimates from BEIS (the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) put the median cost for the same installation in March 2018 at £6,856.

This equates to a 66% drop in the median installation cost for a 4kW system since 2010. The cost of installation is still a barrier for many households. The payback period is longer now that the Feed-in tariff has ended and without an expensive energy storage system electricity still has to be purchased form the National Grid. The good news is that the Smart Export Guarantee has been launched to replace FIT payments – find out more in our guide. And if you want to know how to switch energy suppliers when you've got solar panels, find out all you need to know.

That being said, solar energy is totally renewable – there’ll always be sunlight. People and communities everywhere on the planet have the potential to generate their own clean electricity without relying on energy suppliers. And, most importantly, they can massively reduce their carbon footprint too. 

Want to know more about reducing carbon emissions, energy efficiency and living a greener life? Or want to get your head around even more carbon jargon? Browse our blog where we delve into everything from solar energy and hydroelectricity, to a brewery with a brilliant solution to food waste

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