Your guide to solar energy and how it works

With renewable energy sources in high demand, we look into the different types in more detail to find out how solar energy works.

Disclaimer: The information on this page was last updated on 23/12/2022, 13:22:48

With renewable energy on the rise, you might be wondering how it all works. Solar energy is the most popular renewable energy source in the home as it’s easily accessible and not hard to run.

How does solar energy work?

While solar panels are simple to run, the process of turning the sun into energy isn’t quite so simple.

Solar panels are made up of many photovoltaic cells which can absorb sunlight ready to turn into energy. These cells have multiple layers to them, all of which have a different job.

The most important layer is the ‘semiconductor layer’, which is what converts the sun’s energy into useful electricity. The silicon coating of the semiconductors reacts with the sunlight and allows electrons to flow through, creating an electric field. This is called the photovoltaic effect.

The electrons in this field are captured in the wiring in the cells to create Direct Current (DC) electricity. Unfortunately, most appliances can’t be powered by DC electricity, so it’s sent to a solar inverter where it can be converted into Alternating Current (AC) electricity which we use in our homes.

Different types of solar panel

There are three main types of solar panel: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film solar panels.

Monocrystalline solar panels are the most common panels used for home solar energy. They’re made up of cells sliced from a single silicon crystal, which gives them a more consistent look. Because electrons have more space to move around freely, monocrystalline panels are more efficient and can produce a better electricity flow. However, monocrystalline is the most expensive option as the cells cost more to produce.

Polycrystalline solar panels are the cheaper option of the two crystalline panels, however, with lower costs comes lower efficiency. Because the cells are made from multiple silicon crystals blended together, the electrons don’t have as much space to move and generate less electricity.

Thin-film solar panels are a more innovative technology, however, they have an even lower efficiency than the polycrystalline panels. They can be made from a range of different substances, such as amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, and dye-sensitised solar cells. Because they are a single sheet rather than individual cells, thin-film solar panels can be lightweight and flexible. They’re most often used for businesses and large scale operations.

Advantages of solar energy

Solar panels come with solutions for a huge number of problems, such as:

  • High electricity prices – The price of solar panels has decreased significantly over the past few years, whereas traditional energy costs are soaring. After the initial payment of your solar panels, you can generate and use free electricity and your energy provider might even be able to pay you for solar energy.
  • Environmental issues – One house isn’t going to fix the world’s problems, but it is one step closer to a renewable future. Solar energy doesn’t burn anything, which means it doesn’t release toxins and greenhouse gases.
  • Sustainability – The sun is going to be around for a lot longer than the fossil fuels that we are currently using, which could run out very soon.
  • Blackouts – Because you’re connected to your own energy source, you’re less likely to be affected by blackouts due to damage or high demand.
  • Noise pollution – Unlike many energy sources, solar power doesn’t create any noise so it’s great to have in urban and domestic areas without affecting the neighbours.
  • Unemployment – With the increasing demand for solar-powered homes comes an increase in jobs in manufacturing and installation. With renewable energy on the rise, there are already thousands of jobs being created.

Disadvantages of solar energy

While there are a huge number of benefits to having solar panels installed in your home, there are also drawbacks to consider.

  • High start-up costs – Solar panels can be quite expensive to buy and install at first, and it can take several years before you’ve saved more than you’ve spent.
  • Weather dependency – While your solar panel generates electricity all through daylight hours, they’ll be able to generate more on sunnier days and you might end up running out of electricity over the winter when it’s less sunny and daylight hours are shorter.
  • Time dependency – Your solar panels won’t be generating electricity overnight, so you might have to pay extra to draw electricity from the grid if you don’t have storage batteries.
  • They stand out on your house – Many people are put off by the aesthetics of having solar panels on their roof. However, as technology advances, more and more solutions to this are starting to emerge.
  • They can take up a lot of space – Depending on how much energy you’re using, you might not have a roof big enough to fit the number of solar panels you need in the right places.

How much can I save?

While you can save money on your electricity bills switching to solar power, the panels come with a hefty price tag. The most common solar panels chosen are 4kWh and consist of 16 panels. This should generate enough electricity for a 3-4 person household, however, you might still have to use some from the grid. These panels will set you back around £6,000-£8,000 but can save around £270 per year.

While a saving of £270 per year sounds great, this means that it will take around 20 years to save as much as you’ve spent.

What happens to my unused solar energy?

If your solar panel is generating more electricity than you’re using, there are a few other things you can do with the excess energy.

Most solar-powered homes are connected to the National Grid so that if they run out of solar electricity, they can draw from the grid like other homes do. However, because you won’t be using your own energy, you’ll have to pay for this extra electricity. Just like you can draw from the grid, you can also feed your unused energy back. When you feed your electricity back into the grid, some providers will offer you credit towards your energy bills for any extra energy you’ve had to use.

A lot of people with solar panels opt to store their unused electricity. Instead of being sent to the National Grid, it’s sent to batteries linked into your solar system so you can use it later (for example, at night). You can still feed electricity back into the grid, but only when your batteries are fully charged. You can also still draw energy from the grid if your batteries are depleted, but you can avoid this happening by linking up bigger batteries – the higher capacity your battery has, the more solar energy it can store.

Solar panel installation

It usually only takes a day to install solar panels at your home as it’s quite a simple process, however, it can take longer depending on the size and complexity of your system.

Before the installation goes ahead, your solar panel installer will check your roof for loose tiles or anything else that might affect the safety and stability. Once this has been checked, fixed, and approved, the solar panel installation can begin.

The first thing to be installed is the electrical wiring which will connect your panels and power system. Then, the racking which will hold the panels is attached to your roof. This is the only piece of equipment that will be attached to your roof – the panels themselves will sit on the racking to keep them at the best angle without damaging your roof. Finally, your inverter will be hooked up, ready to convert DC electricity into usable AC electricity.

To make sure the installation was completed properly, someone will come and check over the final system. They will check the wiring and panels were all fitted safely before connecting your system to the grid.

Taking care of your solar panels

Solar panels require very little maintenance, which is why this is one of the most popular renewable energy sources.

To make sure they’re working at full efficiency, you should keep an eye on the inverter to see how much power your panels are producing. This will fluctuate daily, however, you should be able to notice if there’s something gone wrong.

Keeping your panels clean from dust and dirt helps them absorb more sunlight. Even though they’re on your roof, they’re super easy to clean – all you need is a bit of water. If there’s a stain that might take a bit of extra work, some hot soapy water should do the job.

Solar energy around the world

Globally, we have the capacity of almost 650gw of solar energy. It’s quickly increasing, despite the pandemic, and now there are almost 40 countries with a capacity of over 1gw. Solar power is currently the cheapest electricity in history, so it’s no wonder it’s increasing in popularity.

China is leading the way in solar power, with a capacity of over 200gw at the start of 2020. It’s predicted that by 2024, they will have a solar energy capacity of 370gw as the demand for renewable energy increases. While their growth in the solar market is booming, they’re still very reliant on coal production, damaging their renewability status.

Solar farms are even popping up in the most unusual places, such as Alaska, where they have just 6 hours of daylight during the winter months and panels can easily disappear in the snow. Renewable IPP set up a 10-acre solar farm, which can currently provide power for around 120 homes year-round.

Solar energy in the UK

Despite our lack of sun here in the UK, we’re the 6th largest solar energy producer around the world and the 3rd largest in Europe.

Solar energy is a huge part of our fuel mix, averaging a share of 10% of all of our energy use.

Despite this, there is only one available solar power incentive in the UK: the Smart Export Guarantee. It came into effect on the 1st January 2020, replacing the Feed-in Tariff, which pays you for any energy you feed back into the national grid.

Solar energy for business

Solar panels and solar energy isn’t just for the home, it’s also a great source of electricity for your business where you’re using more and spending more.

Big businesses are often blamed for the increase in pollution and climate change, and it’s not hard to see why. Only 20 firms create more than a third of all greenhouse gases in the world right now and 100 companies are behind 71%. Stand out from the crowd with renewable energy and get behind the net-zero goal.

Switching to renewable energy can be great advertising as you receive substantial green credentials. With more and more people turning to green companies for their products, decreasing your carbon footprint won’t just be great for the environment, it will be great for business.

By powering your business with solar energy, you can easily cut costs and improve profit margins without worry. Traditional forms of energy have increased in price for businesses over the past few years whereas the price of solar energy has significantly dropped.

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