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Using solar energy in the UK can be a great way to produce renewable energy, save money, and reduce your reliance on the national grid. But is it viable in 2020?
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Even those of us who are unfamiliar with renewable energy know a solar panel when we see one. We’ve all seen them adorn rooftops all over the country. And every time you see one, you see a household that’s not only saving money on their energy bills, but voting with their wallets for a greener future. Many of us have, at some time or another, toyed with the idea of installing solar panels in our roofs and generating cleaner off-the-grid power for our homes and businesses.
But let’s face it, the UK isn’t known for its blazing hot and sunny days. You may well consider installing solar panels on your roof a folly given the grey, rainy drizzly days that we tend to endure as a nation. Although we’re more enthusiastic about making our energy greener than ever before, it’s easy to see why there might be barriers to generating solar energy for your UK home or business. Given our intemperate climate, the fluctuations in government grants and incentives and the potential cost barriers, UK consumers might reasonably wonder just how viable solar energy in the UK really is.
In this guide we’ll take a close look at solar energy in the UK. We’ll find out how it works, how it’s changing, how much it could save in the long term and how viable it is for your home or business premises in 2020.
What is solar energy?
Let’s start at the very beginning.
Solar energy is a renewable energy source that converts energy into the sun into energy for our homes and businesses. There are two kinds of energy that can be generated from solar power— electricity and heat energy for your water supply or indoor air. The sun is an enormous source of energy. In fact, in just a single hour, the sun radiates enough energy to power the whole world’s electricity needs for a year. Even on cloudy, rainy or overcast days, the sun can produce more than enough energy to help power our homes. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency solar energy has the potential to surpass fossil fuels, and even other renewables like wind and hydro to become the world’s largest energy source by 2050.
In its current form, solar energy has been around since the early 1950s. However its roots can be traced back even further. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used magnification of the sun’s rays to light fires for domestic, religious and even military applications.
Solar energy is currently the third biggest renewable energy source in the UK after wind farming and biomass (which uses the chemical energy from natural processes). Although some energy suppliers incorporate solar power as part of their energy mix, most in the UK leverage solar power in a different way. By installing solar panels on the roof of their home or business, energy consumers can supplement the energy from the National Grid with energy that they generate themselves.
The net result for consumers is lower energy bills, more sustainable energy and less reliance on energy suppliers. Indeed, by feeding energy into the grid, energy consumers can actually get paid by energy suppliers via “Feed in Tariffs” (which are now known under a new name, the “Smart Export Guarantee” of SEG).
The current state of solar energy in the UK
Over the past decade and a half, we’ve seen a colossal boost in solar energy production. In 2006, the UK had just 12 megawatts of solar capacity. Last year, however, this exploded to over 13,000 MW.
There’s no doubt that financially attractive Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) were a big part of this. However, these were discontinued last year (although applicants who had already installed solar panels in 2019 were still able to apply for FiTs before March 2020). Although FiTs have been replaced by SEGs, there was a dramatic dip in new installations following the end of FiTs.
Unfortunately, the increase in VAT from 5% to 20% on all new installations has also contributed to a slight loss of momentum for the UK’s solar infrastructure.
But things are looking up!
As of 2019 it has become mandatory for all energy companies with over 150,000 customers to have at least one tariff with a Smart Export Guarantee available. As such, all of the “Big 6” suppliers have one, as do many of the smaller suppliers.
Our national target for solar energy is to reach a total solar capacity of 15,674, a compound annual growth rate of 4%. An ambitious target that speaks to our national faith in solar energy.
How do solar panels generate power?
Now we know a little about solar power and its presence in the UK energy market, but how do the black panels on our roofs actually work?
The evolution of the solar cell
Solar panels use the principle of Photovoltaics (PV) to generate electricity. The photovoltaic effect was actually discovered way back in 1839 by a young French scientist called Edmund Bacquerel. Years later, in 1879, the world’s first photovoltaic cell was made by Charles Fritts. Fritts. It involved coating the semiconductor selenium with a thin layer of gold. As such, it was both costly and inefficient at just 1% efficiency. However, over the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous attempts were made to improve the energy efficiency of PV solar cells. By 1954 the solar cell as we know it today was invented, and by the 1980s the technology became affordable and practical enough for widespread deployment.
How today’s PV solar panels work
Today’s solar panels operate on the same principle of photovoltaics, although most use silicon as a semiconductor. Within each solar panel there will be multiple PV cells linked together.
How they work is as follows:
- A solar panel is placed on the roof. Usually a south-facing roof to maximise exposure to the sun.
- A PV cell is sandwiched between two layers of conductive silicon. This is what converts the solar energy into electricity.
- The top layer of silicon (seeded with phosphorus) absorbs solar energy while also adding electrons.
- The two outer layers of the sandwich create an electric field around the PV cell.
- The PV cells work by knocking electrons free from atoms, generating the flow of electricity.
- The electricity generated by the solar panel then feeds the appliances used in the home.
- Any remaining energy is fed back into the National Grid.
How solar thermal panels work
Remember that solar panels can be used to generate thermal energy, too! Thermal panels capture and store heat energy from the sun, using it to heat water in a hot water cylinder or tank. This can be used to create ambient heating or to generate hot water for bathing and cleaning.
Solar tiles and slates: How do they work?
Solar panels can be a tremendous boon to any household. However, their presence is very visually distinctive. Some people don’t mind this, while others prefer a more discreet way to enjoy the benefits of solar panels. For these consumers, there is an alternative option.
Solar tiles and slates are discreet and at first glance look indistinguishable from regular roofing tiles. However, they are not quite as efficient as an array of solar panels and may be much more costly to install.
However, they are also a neat way of circumventing local building codes and restrictions that might prohibit you from installing conventional solar panels. Always check with your local authority before installing any kind of solar apparatus on your roof.
Mobile solar panels
It’s not just static homes that can benefit from solar panels. There are also solar panels designed exclusively for use with motorhomes and caravans. They can use either roof-mounted solar panels or portable solar panels that are placed on the ground. These can be used to power all manner of electrical devices like TVs, lights fridges etc. when there is no access to mains power. They can also be used to charge the vehicle’s battery.
What are solar farms?
Although upwards of 800,000 homes throughout the UK use PV panels (and a further 250,000+ homes use thermal solar panels) these are by no means the UK’s only source of solar energy.
Supplementing the energy this million-plus homes contribute to the grid, there are also a number of solar farms (also known as solar parks) all over the country. These use the same PV panels as we see on many rooftops, but on a much larger scale. These solar farms use vast arrays of interconnected solar panels collecting solar energy and generating electricity to be fed into the National Grid.
At present there are 425 solar farms around the country, varying in size from 1-100 acres. They are usually found in rural and agricultural areas, with the largest being Shotwick Solar Park in Flintshire, North Wales. This site spans a massive 250 acres and has a total capacity of 72.2 megawatts.
The pros & cons of solar power
Solar power is near-infinitely renewable and, as solar panels grow more and more efficient, an increasingly promising source of green energy. But the simple truth is that no form of energy is perfect. Like all renewables, solar energy in the UK has its pros and its cons.
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits and caveat that come with solar energy…
Solar power pros
There’s a lot to love about solar power. 5 of the most prominent benefits include:
- It’s great for the planet: Solar energy one of the cleanest forms of energy there is, producing no by-products of emissions. The only by-products creates are those generated by the manufacturing and installation processes. According to the Energy Saving Trust, installing a solar PV system could reduce the average UK home’s carbon emissions by 1.2 to 1.7 tonnes every year. What’s more, solar farms can help to support biodiversity by allowing small animals, birds and insects access to the land between them.
- It pays for itself over time: Aside from the environmental benefits that are increasingly important to UK energy consumers, solar energy also represents significant savings on energy bills. In fact, homes with relatively modest energy needs may find that selling their excess energy back to their supplier under a FiT or SEG becomes a viable revenue stream.
- It helps energy consumers who are “off the grid: Not all homes and commercial properties have access to the National Grid. Those living in remote areas, or in caravans and motor homes can benefit from a renewable energy source without needing to connect to the grid. As long as you have access to sunlight, you have access to energy.
- It generates economic activity: Solar energy creates tens of thousands of job opportunities within the UK, with 10,900 new jobs created last year alone according to Statista. What’s more, a thriving solar energy infrastructure prevents us from having to rely on imported energy from overseas. This can lead to lower and more stable energy prices.
- Solar panels are recyclable Both the common silicon based PV panels and thin film panels can be recycled at the end of their lifespan, and the silicon from which they’re made is an abundant resource. As they become more ubiquitous, we can expect the solar panel recycling industry to establish a broader presence in the UK.
- Solar panels are low-maintenance at scale: Whether you have one single solar panel on your roof or a vast solar array covering 100 acres of land, you can enjoy the same benefit. Solar panels are inherently low-maintenance. With no moving parts to contend with and a fairly simple composition, they’re easy and affordable to maintain. A small amount of wear and tear caused by the weather and occasionally having to replace a cable or inverter is the most you’ll have to contend with. You can expect to enjoy 25-30 years of continuous use from your solar panels with very little time and effort spent on maintenance.
Solar power cons
As we can see, solar energy in the UK has some pretty compelling benefits. But what about the caveats? Let’s take a look at some of the cons of solar power:
- Expensive installation: Solar panels themselves have grown much more affordable in recent years, with costs dropping by around 70% since 2010. However, installing solar panels on your roof is still an investment that will set you back several thousand pounds. We’ll go over specific costs later. However, the upfront costs may be prohibitive to many UK households, especially as the government does not subsidise the installation of PV solar panel installation.
- It’s difficult and costly to store solar energy: While PV solar panels don’t necessarily need direct sunlight to generate energy, they can only generate power during daylight hours. And since we cannot generate energy at night, it would be advantageous to be able to store the excess energy that is generated during daylight hours. Unfortunately, however, solar batteries are still in their infancy. They are expensive and inefficient. As such, many households that have solar panels are still partially reliant on energy from the grid.
- Solar energy is reliant on the weather: Solar panels can generate energy on grey and cloudy days. However, they are at peak efficiency in clear and sunny weather. A climate that is unfortunately not a mainstay in dear old blighty. As such, the amount of energy generated can be unpredictable and unreliable, with the changing seasons dictating household business’ reliance on the grid. What’s more, the technology behind solar panels has inherent bottlenecks when it comes to how much energy they can produce. Of all the solar energy absorbed by PV panels, only around 16.5% is actually converted into electricity.
- Solar panel manufacture isn’t the greenest At present, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/11/141111-solar-panel-manufacturing-sustainability-ranking/"solar panel manufacturing techniques result in greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste water. However, as solar energy becomes a bigger presence in the UK energy mix, this will hopefully lead to research into greener manufacturing techniques.
However, research into new conductors to augment the silicon layers could change this in the very near future.
How much do solar panels cost?
We’ve talked about the upfront cost of solar panels being a potential barrier to entry for some UK households and businesses. But how much can we realistically expect to pay to install solar panels in our homes and businesses? This can vary considerably, depending on the type of solar panels you want to install and whether you choose to install them yourself or have them installed professionally.
Let’s break down the costs associated with installing different kinds of solar panels. All of the following are based on estimates from the Energy Saving Trust:
The cost of PV panels
PV panels are the most common solar panels in the UK. And because there are numerous different brands and types of PV panels on the market, the cost of installation can vary wildly. It can cost anywhere between £3,000-£9,000 depending on the size of your home, the number of panels needed and their brand and capacity.
On average, UK households can expect to pay between £5,000 and £8,000 to install solar panels on their property. As more and more brands enter the market to bring more affordable solar panels, however, this could drop considerably in the next few years, with IKEA entering the market with affordable solar panel and battery solutions.
The cost of thermal panels
Thermal panels are generally a little cheaper than PV panels. On average, households can expect to pay between £4,000 and £5,000 according to the Energy Saving Trust. However, despite being cheaper, they also take longer to pay for themselves. Because they are unable to generate much heat in the winter months, meaning that households still need to rely on grid energy. Households can expect to save between £50 and £80 per year on average by installing thermal panels.
The cost of solar tiles and slates
The benefits of solar tiles and slates are largely cosmetic. They can also be used to get around building codes and local restrictions that might prohibit the installation of PV solar panels. If you live in an older property, solar tiles may also help you to keep the property’s aesthetic intact.
However, the use of solar tiles comes at a premium. In fact, they can cost up to 3 times more to install than PV solar panels. A 3kw solar tile system could cost between £10,000 and £12,000 to install, with an estimated £7250 in savings over 25 years. They’re certainly more an investment for the eco-conscious rather than those who simply want to save money.
However, they may pay for themselves in more indirect ways. They could potentially add even more value to your home (as much as 10%) than solar panels if you choose to move.
The cost of DIY solar panels
What makes the cost of installing solar panels prohibitive to many is that the cost of the panels themselves is supplemented by the cost of installation. As such, seasoned DIYers with a head for heights may consider installing their own solar panels. A measure that could result in substantial savings.
DIY solar energy kits are available for as little as £600 with even the most expensive packages topping out at around £4,500. However, it’s essential to be realistic about your capabilities. Incorrect installation could result in instability or damage to the panels. Either of which can result in costly outcomes.
The cost of solar panels for motorhomes and caravans
If you’re looking for solar panels to install on your motorhome or caravan, you’ll find that these are eminently affordable compared to a home installation. In fact, with a rise in availability has come increased competition. As such, there are a range of solar panels available for roof installation. There are even self-contained units that can be placed on the ground and connected to the vehicle. These can cost upwards of £600 or as little as £60 depending on your needs and usage.
Grants, schemes and tariffs for individuals and companies
Both world governments and the private energy sector understand the importance of renewability. As our we become more reliant on digital and electronic devices at home and at work, our energy needs are growing more extensive. And it’s clear that an alternative to finite fossil fuels is necessary.
As well as switching to greener energy tariffs, homes can install renewable infrastructures like solar panels and their own wind turbines to reduce their reliance on energy from the grid. Many governments around the world offer generous incentives to help households find more renewable means of powering their homes. And, until recently, the UK government has been among those that offer generous incentives. However, under the current government, many of these incentives have been stripped away in recent years. Although some are still available.
Let’s take a closer look:
Feed in Tariffs and Smart Export Guarantees
These incentives are offered by energy suppliers. They effectively pay you for the excess of energy that you feed into the grid after powering your home. Although Feed in Tariffs were closed to new applicants in March of 2020 they have been succeeded by Smart Export Guarantees (SEGs) that came into force at the start of 2020. These are functionally similar to FiTs with similar rates per kWh. However, SEGs are more broadly available than their predecessors. FiTs were mandatory for any energy supplier with over 250,000 customers while SEGs are mandatory for suppliers with 100,000 customers or more. Smaller companies are also free to offer them in a voluntary basis. Rates can vary between 2p per and 5.6p per kWh depending on your supplier.
If, however, you were in a FiT prior to March 2020, you will still continue to benefit from your FiT. However, rates have plummeted over the past decade. When the scheme first started out in 2010, costumes enjoyed rates of 43.3 pence per kilowatt hour. Today, however, customers will be lucky to get rates over 4p per kWh. Most suppliers also offer tariffs for energy exported from your solar battery, if you have one.
SEGs are available both to private homes and businesses.
Green Homes Grant
Frustratingly, there are no government grants in place to mitigate the upfront costs of installing new PV solar panels. However, it is possible to get support towards the cost of new thermal panels for solar water heating under the Green Homes Grant, which provides homeowners and landlords in England with up to £5,000 in vouchers for energy-saving renovations including thermal panels but excluding PV panels.
Renewable Heat Incentives (RHIs)
Finally, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was originally extended to UK businesses to encourage them to switch to renewable heating methods. In 2014, however, this measure was extended to households, too. Under the scheme, homes and businesses alike can get 7-year long support for renewable heating systems via quarterly cash payments. According to the Centre For Sustainable Energy, payments currently stand at 21.09p per kWh.
Properties must first obtain an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) before applying.
The scheme is expected to end in March 2021.
What average savings can you expect per region?
Although solar panels do not require direct sunlight to generate energy, what they produce is proportionate to the amount of sunlight hours your home or business gets. The savings you can get from solar energy in the UK will depend on the region in which you live, as this will affect the weather that you typically experience as well as the rates at which you will receive incentives from your supplier via your FiT or SEG tariff.
Check the table below to see how much you can save with and without a SEG in your area. Needless to say, savings will vary depending on how much energy your household uses and when you tend to use it.
The following estimates are based on optimal savings (i.e. households that work from home and / or are at home all day). All data comes from The Energy Saving Trust:
|Region||Annual Savings With SEG||Annual Savings Without SEG|
|London and Southern England||£330||£240|
|Northern Ireland||Not available||£250|
Although consumers in Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy savings from FiTs, the SEG scheme is not available in this region. However, there are numerous organisations that will pay for the excess energy you generate.
The median average savings for England, Scotland and Wales is £305 per annum with a SEG and £235 without.
The Energy Saving Trust also has this useful calculator that can give you a more specific estimate of your potential energy savings.
In the mix: How much of our energy mix comes from solar energy?
Between private homes feeding their own solar energy back into the grid and the energy from the UK’s solar farms, solar is a growing presence in our UK energy mix.
But how much of the UK’s energy mix comes from solar energy?
Ofgem’s data shows that solar and wind together made up an impressive 27.98% of our energy mix for Q1 2020. However government data suggests that while the UK solar capacity is slightly increased from last year, PV solar energy’s presence in the energy mix actually dropped by 11% at 1.9 Terawatt hours (TWh). This was due to a decrease in average daily sun hours.
You can read the full report here.
The future of solar energy in the UK
There’s certainly more than enough potential for a bright solar-powered future in the UK. A 2014 study by Green Building Press suggests that covering 61 per cent of south-facing commercial roofs with solar panels could provide all the energy UK business needs, while saving at least £30,000 a year in energy costs for medium and larger businesses. Savings that could be channelled into research and development to make their operations even greener.
New materials in development right now could mean that solar panels are able to generate more energy from the same amount of sunlight. Coating the silicon outer layer of thermal cells with a thin layer of a crystal material called perovskite (discovered 200 years ago) could widen the performance bottleneck that have held back the efficiency of solar panels.
At present silicon solar cells can convert around 22% of the available solar energy into electricity. However, tests in 2018 showed that a perovskite-on-silicon solar cell could achieve a record-breaking 27.3%. This extra 5.3% may not seem like much in isolation, but it could go a long way in offsetting the lull in availability when sunlight hours are reduced.
Does it make sense to equip my house with solar panels. Is it still viable in the UK?
This is a decision that your household or business will have to make for itself. It depends on how much energy you use, when you use it and how long you intend to remain in your current home.
Although many of yesteryear’s government incentives to install solar panels have been retracted, savings from SEGs could significantly reduce your energy bills by an average of £305 a year. What’s more, it can significantly reduce your home’s carbon footprint saving around a tonne of carbon dioxide every year.
If you can afford the upfront expense and / or can install your own solar panels, you may be surprised by how quickly they pay for themselves.
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Solar energy in the UK FAQs
How much could I save by installing solar panels
This depends on where you live. On average you can expect to save around £305 a year with a Small Export Guarantee and £235 without. Use The Energy Saving Trust’s calculator to see how much you could save.
Can I take my solar panels with me if I move home?
Yes, in theory. But in practice it can be extremely difficult. Even if you’re able to get your solar panels down without damaging them, fitting them to your new roof may prove extremely difficult. However, since solar panels can add up to 14-38% to your home’s value (depending on where you live) it may be more reliable and cost-effective to leave them in place and set up new panels in your new home.
If you are currently on a FiT tariff this will remain with your old property. You cannot take it with you.
Which UK suppliers provide energy from solar power?
Solar energy is an increasing presence in the UK energy mix. At present both Tonik Energy and Good Energy provide energy from solar power.
What are Feed in Tariffs and how can I get one?
Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) are energy tariffs that pay you for energy that your solar panels and (where appropriate) solar batteries feed into the energy grid.
However, the scheme was discontinued for new applicants in March of 2019. However, you can still apply for a Small Export Guarantee with many UK energy suppliers. This is functionally similar to FiTs and have similar rates.
To read more on this topic, check out these guides:
Updated on 24 Nov, 2020