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Solar power and panels

Solar panels are now a common feature on UK roofs, allowing homeowners to generate their own power and benefit from feed-in tariffs. Find out more…

Key points

  • Solar panels can be initially costly, but homeowners can then save money by creating some of their own electricity and/or selling energy through feed-in tariffs
  • There may be government grants available to help with the initial cost
  • Think about implications in regards to repairs to your roof, home insurance premiums and your mortgage
  • Solar power is likely to become more prevalent as costs lower and options increase for storing the excess electricity generated

The advantages of solar power to consumers, the country and the planet are obvious, as it allows the creation of energy in a clean, renewable fashion.

Solar panels use photovoltaic (PV) technology to convert the sun's energy into electricity.

This can be done on an industrial scale, but is perhaps most visible on house roofs throughout the UK; increasingly, photovoltaic panels are also being added into the fabric of buildings, such as wall panels.

This allows individual property owners to create at least some of their own energy, helping them to cut the cost of electricity bills and even make money by supplying energy to others through feed-in tariffs.

The growth of solar energy only looks likely to continue in the future, but it already forms a major plank in the UK's energy strategy.

"The cost of solar photovoltaics has tumbled over the last 10-20 years," said Dr Iain Staffel, sustainable energy expert at Imperial College London in a March 2016 interview for the BBC's Inside Science show.

"In summer 2015 there were times of day when 20% of Britain's electricity came from solar power, and in 2016 this could be 30-40%.

"That's based on midday on a sunny summer afternoon, with probably half of the power coming from people's roofs and half from larger solar farms, which are mostly in the southern half of the country.

"As we build more solar and get more experience we get better at it and it becomes cheaper and cheaper. We need to get the cost down further so more people can afford it, but the government has been cutting subsidies.

"What we may see now is a period of slower growth until costs come down and it becomes stand-alone economically viable for people."

Should I invest in solar panels?

Cutting energy bills and being paid to create your own energy sounds attractive but there are, of course, significant set-up costs to consider.

What is photovoltaics?

Photovoltaics (PV) is a way of converting solar energy into electricity.

The sort of materials required for the semiconductors to do this are said to exhibit a 'photovoltaic effect'.

The Energy Savings Trust has calculators to help you work out potential returns; try its solar energy calculator for solar PV.

If you like the thought of solar panels but you're baulking at the initial price, it's worth looking into whether there's a government incentive scheme available to help.

Such schemes have suffered from significant cuts, but you may still find something suitable.

You may also find options for having solar panels installed for free; in such cases it's likely that you'll be able to benefit from the electricity you generate for your own home, but you're unlikely to qualify for additional returns from a feed-in tariff.

You can read more about some of the options available for producing your own energy in our guide to renewable technology.

What homes are suitable for solar panels?

To make the most of the UK's limited sunshine, properties with south-facing roofs are best suited to the installation of solar panels. Green energy

That's not to say that houses with roofs pointing in a different direction can't have solar panels; they just won't be as effective as they'll get less sunshine on them.

For the same reason, you'll also get most benefit if the roof is free of shade from things such as overhanging trees and tall, adjacent buildings.

Note that there might be local restrictions on the installation of solar panels, and it's a typical exclusion if you live in a listed building.

Other considerations when thinking about solar panels

If you're considering solar panels, it's worth ensuring that your roof is in a good state of repair before proceeding; having work done may be more difficult and expensive after the panels are attached.

Panels will be considered part of your home's structure, meaning that you'll need to inform your home insurance company and your mortgage provider (if you have one).

Storage is the real thing that could revolutionise solar and wind energy… but the problem is that it's quite difficult to store electricity
Dr Iain Staffel

If you're a tenant, you shouldn't even consider installing panels without speaking to your landlord first.

Bear in mind that installing panels may result in a rise in the price of your buildings insurance as it presents an additional risk to the insurer.

Remember also that a standard home insurance policy is unlikely to cover the panels for mechanical problems.

The future of solar power in the UK

In his March 2016 BBC interview, Dr Staffel predicted big things for solar power in the UK as the technology continues to develop, but noted the practical considerations that must also be remembered.

"There's no talk of powering the entire UK with solar, we're not renowned as a sunny country," he said.

"While it's a bit more predictable than wind power, we're not too good at predicting whether it'll be a cloudy or sunny day. How to make business energy savings

"Also, all the panels across the country are pretty much synchronised, meaning they produce power at the same time - when it's sunny - and turn off at the same time - when it's not.

"At the moment we occasionally have to dump excess wind power because there's too much to move from Scotland to England, and it'll only be a few years before we have the same situation with solar.

"One of the big differences, though, is that most of the wind farms are quite big installations run by professional companies, while most solar panels are on people's rooftops.

"There's no way that National Grid can reach into houses and turn off a million solar panels at once, so only larger installations may be controllable in this way.

"Storage is the real thing that could revolutionise solar and wind energy… but the problem is that it's quite difficult to store electricity.

Cornwall's sunshine tariff

In 2016, residents of the Cornwall town of Wadebridge were offered the opportunity of signing up to a so-called sunshine tariff.

A lot of solar energy is created in the area, so residents have been encouraged to try this tariff which charges a lower price for electricity in the day than in the night.

Such innovative pricing models for energy are made possible by smart meters; the roll-out of these meters is likely to lead to more and more time-of-use tariffs.

"For the last 100 years we've just pumped water up a mountain when we don't want the power, then let it back down again when we do.

"Now there are lots of other technical options. We can compress air and then expand it again, we can use flywheels as they have in Formula 1 to make cars more efficient, or there are the lithium-ion batteries going into electric vehicles.

"All of these options can either be reduced in size down to something that could fit into your house, or they could be used at a grid scale and placed next to distribution stations.

"This is already happening in Germany where the storage market is doubling, pretty much every year.

"At the start of 2016 there were 20,000 homes in Germany with a battery storage pack, there's real momentum behind this.

"At the moment, National Grid isn't allowed to own or operate any storage devices. Anti-competition laws mean that, because it owns the wires, it isn't allowed to also own anything that can generate power."

By Sean Davies