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Solar Power

What is Solar Power and How Does it Work?

The sun gives off enough solar power in one day to provide the energy needs of the entire world for a year. However, is solar energy a viable option for those of us living in the UK?



Solar power has been in use in one form or another for many thousands of years. It involves using the sun as a clean and renewable source of energy.

Solar energy can be used mainly in two ways – to provide heat and hot water to your home or to generate electricity using photovoltaic panels.

Using solar energy in this way is a great method of cutting your carbon dioxide emissions as well as providing a proportion of your heat, water and electricity needs.

Solar Thermal Panels

Solar thermal it uses the energy from the sun to heat water for domestic use. Even in Britain, there is enough sunlight to provide the hot water requirements for the average family during summer and enough to preheat water during the rest of the year.

There are two types of solar hot water collectors:

Solar Panels on House Roof

What is the difference between solar thermal panels and solar PV panels?

Solar water heating panels or collectors work in an entirely different way to Photovoltaic (PV) panels. With solar water heating panels, water flows through pipes in the panels and the sun heats the water. This type of system will only produce hot water.

PV solar panels generate electricity which you use in the normal way in your home and can also be fed back into the National Grid.

Flat Plate Collectors
These are installed on the roof of your home and are sheets of black metal that absorb the sun’s energy. Pipes are attached to the sheets and are filled with water, which absorbs the heat from the metal.

Evacuated Tubes
Again, these are fitted on the roof of your home and are made of glass tubes, which surround an absorber plate. These are more efficient than flat plates as heat loss is almost non-existent due to the insulating vacuum inside the glass.

Installing a solar hot water system in your home will cost you around £500 – £1500 if you install it yourself. If you hire a professional to install a commercially built system, costs will rise to £2000 – £6000. These prices can vary depending on the size of the system you install.

Installation costs of a solar thermal system can be offset via the Renewable Heat Incentive provided it’s installed by an MCS certified installer. Other technologies eligible for the incentive include ground source heat pumps, air source heat pumps and biomass boilers.

Solar Photovoltaic Panels

These work on the basic principle that the sun can create electricity within certain materials, a concept discovered by Edmund Becquerel in 1839 call the photovoltaic effect. Panels are installed on the roof of your home, which will convert sunlight into electricity. The roof panels produce clean, environmentally friendly electricity, which can be used to power any electrical appliance.

The amount of electricity generated will vary according to available sunlight so for this reason you will stay connected to the national grid via a traditional supplier to cover any extra electricity you may need. Provided the system is installed by an MCS accredited installer using MCS accredited equipment any electricity generated will qualify for payments via via the feed-in tariff in the same way wind turbines and small scale hydro power , any unused electricity can be sold back to your energy provider

This system is expensive to install, starting at around £8,000; with an average system costing £11,000- £12,000. The feed-in tariff does however make it possible to recoup the initial outlay in a relatively short amount of time whilst receiving significant residual payments for the remaining life of the system. Cost can be calculate via Solar Guide’s solar pv calculator.