How do solar panels work?
Solar panels – also known as photovoltaic or PV panels – convert sunlight into electricity you can use. With these panels, you can generate your own solar power for your home, cutting both your electricity bill and your carbon dioxide emissions.
These panels work by using small photovoltaic cells nestled between layers of silicon. When daylight hits the cells, it knocks off electrons, creating a flow of electricity.
They’re usually mounted on your roof, but it might be possible to install them on the walls of your home as well.
Solar panels don’t need direct sunlight, and they can still produce energy even in the gloomy British weather. However, it helps to maximise the amount of daylight they’re exposed to. This usually means installing them on a south-facing roof or wall that isn’t shaded by trees or other buildings.
Although they’ll produce electricity on the cloudiest days, solar panels don’t work at night. When the sun sets, you’ll have to rely on the National Grid – or you could buy a home battery to store solar power for when you need it.
How much do solar panels cost?
The cost of installing solar panels depends on the size of your roof and the kind of system you buy. A small system can cost as little as £1,500, but in 2019 the average cost for a 4 kW system – roughly enough to power a three-bedroom home – was between £4,000 and £6,000.
This is expensive – but it’ll save you money in the long run. The Energy Saving Trust estimates that a 4 kW system could save you up to £240 a year in electricity bills. It will also reduce your yearly carbon dioxide emissions by about 2 tonnes.
You can use the Energy Saving Trust’s solar energy calculator to work out how much power you can get from solar panels, and how much money you could save.
The price of solar panels has dropped significantly since 2010, when a similar system could cost upwards of £20,000. Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that solar panels are now around 70% cheaper. The price is continuing to fall, but much more slowly than it did between 2010 and 2015.
Can I get solar panels for free?
Until recently, it was possible to install solar panels for free under ‘rent a roof’ schemes. These offers are no longer available, and you can’t get solar panels for free.
‘Rent a roof’ programmes meant that an energy company would pay for solar panels to be installed on your roof, and in return the company would receive the money made through the government’s feed-in tariffs (FIT). However, since the feed-in tariffs were abolished in 2019, these subsidies have also been scrapped.
This may be for the best, though, as ‘rent a roof’ schemes had some significant drawbacks. Contracts often lasted for 25 years, and some customers found they couldn’t remortgage or sell their homes while they were in place.
Can I get paid for having solar panels?
If you use solar panels, you may be able to earn money by selling any excess electricity you don’t use to your energy provider.
Until 31 March 2019, the government operated a feed-in tariff (FIT) programme, in which households that generated electricity with solar panels would get paid for every kilowatt they produced. However, this tariff no longer exists.
It’s been replaced by the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG). The main difference is that the Smart Export Guarantee won’t pay you for the electricity you produce, but only the surplus – the electricity that you don’t use yourself, and which is sent into the National Grid.
This means that payments from SEG are likely to be lower than they were through the old system. However, energy companies can now offer different prices, so you may be able to find a good deal.
To take advantage of SEG, you’ll need to have a smart energy meter so your provider knows how much electricity you’re exporting. If you don’t have one, many providers will install them for free.
Are solar panels worth it?
In recent years, there have been fewer government incentives to reward you for installing solar panels. However, that doesn’t mean solar panels are no longer worth the cost. They can still save you a significant amount of money on electricity – and they’re good for the environment too.
Before making a decision on whether you should install solar panels, though, it’s a good idea to weigh up the pros and cons.
Some of the advantages of solar panels include:
- Cheaper energy: Because you’re producing your own electricity, you can potentially save hundreds of pounds on your bills
- Carbon cutting: With solar panels, you’re reducing your consumption of electricity from coal and gas, cutting down your carbon footprint. An average 4 kW system will save around two tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
- Renewable and sustainable: Solar power is environmentally friendly and won’t run dry
- Sell your surplus: If you have solar panels, you might be able to make extra money by selling any electricity you don’t use to your energy provider
However, there are also some disadvantages to solar panels:
- The initial outlay: This can be expensive, setting you back thousands of pounds. Installing panels can also be time-consuming or expensive
- Not all houses are suitable: You’ll need a big enough roof, and one that’s not in the shade in the middle of the day. In conservation areas, you’re unlikely to get planning permission
- Location matters: Because different parts of the country get different amounts of daylight, the benefits of solar power will depend on where you live. Chances are you’ll be producing less power – and saving less on your bills – in Scotland than you would in Cornwall
Tips for using solar panels
Solar panels are a big investment, so if you do install them you’ll want to use them effectively. Read our top tips to get the most out of your solar panels.
- Shop around: There are many manufacturers selling solar panels in the UK, so make sure you’re getting the best for your money. Check if your solar seller has been approved by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), which ensures that anything you buy is good quality and from a trustworthy company
- Tell your insurer: Chances are your home insurance will also cover solar panels, but not in all cases. Because solar panels are considered part of your home’s structure, they should be covered against fire, storms, theft, or vandalism – but not accidental damage or wear and tear. In any case, you should let your insurer know if you install solar panels, in case your premiums need to be revised.
- Stagger your appliances: Solar panels provide a limited amount of electricity, so to make the most of them you could avoid running too many energy-sucking appliances at once. That way, you’ll use more of your own solar power, and less from the grid. You can also save by running appliances like dishwashers during the day rather than at night