A guide to solar power


An energy fact...

Did you know that the sun radiates more energy down to the earth’s surface in one day than the whole planet will use in a year?

Puts the power of solar energy into perspective, doesn't it?

So it's common sense to consider harnessing some of that energy… which is why some people choose to install a solar panel on their roof.

Some people love them, some not so much! Whatever you think of them they are offer a source of free energy, so let's take a closer look.

What exactly are solar panels?

Well, that depends which solar panels you want to talk about. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels take the energy from the sun and convert it into electricity. These are the ones that potentially give you electric-selling power.

Potential solar thermal panels use the sun to heat your water as it flows through coils in the panels and back to your water cylinder – there's no electricity involved and it's only your household that will benefit.

They look similar, but are very different. Let’s not forget there's a lot of science and technology involved in the making of these shiny heat collectors, including monocrystalline, polycrystalline and amorphous silicon... dictionary anyone?

Why would you want them?

How lovely would it be to have no electricity bill to worry about for your home or business? And if you could actually make money by selling your unused electricity back to the grid, wouldn’t that be even better?

And at the same time as reducing your carbon footprint and helping the world to be greener... does that answer the question?

Sounds great, but are they expensive to install?

4kWp (kilowatt peak) PV panels will cost between £5,000 and £8,000 . The solar thermal panels are cheaper at between £3,000 and £5,000. While the initial outlay is high, it’s worth considering the long-term benefits too.

How much energy can you make?

According to the Energy Saving Trust, a 4kWp system can generate around 3,800 kilowatt hours of electricity a year in the south of England – which is roughly how much a typical household needs. It will also save nearly two tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. In Scotland the same system can generate about 3,200 kilowatt hours of electricity a year.

What if you don't make enough electricity to keep your home running?

Don't worry, you won't need to revert to candles. The grid has not deserted you and you will still receive electricity if you need it – but you’ll need to pay.

Will they actually make money, though?

Whilst some people manage to make money on their PV panels, it's not guaranteed. It will also take a few years to recoup the purchase and installation costs. The more panels you have, the more electricity they'll make. You can also receive an annual payment through a 'Feed in' tariff. However, this year the government is reducing the tariff significantly so consider your options carefully.

How to make the most out of the panels

Use your washing machine, hoover, dishwasher etc. in the daylight hours while the electricity is free. Take a look at our energy saving tips so that you don’t waste any of that precious free power.

Are all roofs suitable?

All roofs except north-facing roofs are suitable, but some are better than others. South-facing will obviously be more effective – and more likely to qualify for the maximum Feed-In Tariff. If your roof is shaded by trees or buildings it may hamper the best sunlight getting through. Some shade is OK, but your panels need to be completely uncovered between 10am and 4pm for them to work efficiently.

Do you have to get on the roof to clean them?

They do need cleaning to keep them working effectively, but there are companies that will do this for you. Some panels are tilted which helps rain water drain off naturally. You will also need to maintain hedges and trees to stop them blocking the precious light.

Too expensive to consider?

There are some grants and funding available to help you pay for the installation, but if you're not entitled to these the initial outlay is expensive. If you still like the idea of having solar panels though, you could set up your own 'panel fund' – take some energy saving steps and switch suppliers to save money. Put any money you save in your 'panel fund' and hopefully within a few years you could be harnessing your own free electricity.

If now really isn’t the right time for you though, you can still consider your options and save money. Just click above to start comparing tariffs and see if you can find a better deal.