Back in the 1970s, the thought of using photovoltaic solar panels as a main energy source for a home or small office building was nothing more than a fanciful wish. Although solar technology existed, it was expensive to manufacture and too inefficient to make a serious dent in traditional energy use. Nevertheless, a lot has changed since then.
Today solar power is being harnessed for use in individual homes, small businesses, and even large power production plants. Moreover, as the technology continues to move forward, the opportunities for using solar technology as the basis for renewable energy are expanding.
Principle of Solar Power
The basic principle of solar power is to convert the energy of the sun into electricity that can be used for any number of purposes. The original form of solar power was photovoltaic, a process of collecting sunlight and converting it directly into electricity. Today there are three primary methods for harnessing the sun's energy to generate electricity:
- Photovoltaic Solar Panels - This type of solar collection is what is normally observed in a residential or small commercial application. It involves large panels made up of smaller silicone-based solar collection units designed to employ the photoelectric effect to generate electric current. The efficiency of the system makes it impractical for large-scale operations.
- Concentrated Solar Power - Also known as CSP, concentrated solar power utilises solar energy by employing a combination of lenses, mirrors, and tracking systems. CSP concentrates a beam of light to increase its intensity and direct it at a collection device that converts it to heat energy. That heat energy can be used to drive turbines or provide direct heat for a given application.
- Solar Thermal - The solar power method showing the most promise on a large-scale basis is known as "solar thermal" power. This type of power generation does not convert energy from the sun directly into electricity. Rather, the collected energy is used to heat water, which then drives turbines to produce electricity.
There are now dozens of high capacity, solar-based power plants around the world. The largest of them, located in Spain and the United States, use either concentrated solar power or solar thermal. Yet as time goes by solar thermal is proving to be the most efficient and productive of the three technologies.
Solar Power in the UK
At last count, there were more than 230,000 solar projects ongoing in the UK. According to a February 2012 report from PV Magazine, the total installed capacity of all the projects exceeded 1 GW for the first time, making the UK one of the solar power leaders in Europe. Between government education efforts and consumer incentives like feed-in tariffs, the general public is accepting solar power at a faster rate than was originally hoped for.
For example, more UK homeowners are looking into microgeneration opportunities using photovoltaic solar panels as a way to reduce home energy bills. Some are also doing it because they believe in green energy and the principle of converting to renewable sources as quickly as possible.
Since the serious effort to push solar power began in 2006, the progress made in the UK has been very encouraging. The country has gone from a 12.5 MW capacity (representing .03% of the UK's total power needs) to 1 GW of capacity in just six short years. The UK has agreed to generate at least 15% of its power from renewables by 2020; it is looking like we will exceed that thanks to advances in solar energy.
New Solar Technology
One of the biggest drawbacks to solar energy on a large-scale is the ratio between efficiency and cost. For example, photovoltaic solar panels are fairly expensive to produce and are not scalable without a large investment in specialised manufacture equipment. That means the only way to use solar panels on a large scale is to use more of them.
Research and development is directed at solving this problem through new technologies. One of the more recent breakthroughs is out of the University of Sheffield where scientists have developed a method of reducing the cost of producing solar panels by using a spray on material.
As reported by the Solar Power Portal, the advantage of this technology is that you could build solar panels of virtually any size without having to retool the manufacturing environment. The spray on film is a plastic-based product that would take the place of traditional silicone collection units.
The downside to the new technology is its efficiency. The plastic material does not generate the same output as silicone, nor does it last as long. However, researchers hope to make the system so cheap to produce that long-term savings are realised over silicone even though the panels are not as efficient or long lasting.
Solar Power at Home
For the average UK homeowner wanting to get involved in solar power generation, the photovoltaic solar panel is the most reasonable option. The panels are easy to use and install, less expensive than some other microgeneration technologies, and fairly reliable. What's more, solar panels can be installed on your roof, the side of your home, or anywhere else on your property where you have the space and ample sunlight.
Before you install photovoltaic solar panels, here are some things you need to know:
- Size and Capacity - According to Which?, the average solar panel for home use measures between 1 and 2 m². Capacity ranges between 180 and 250 W. With just a single panel, you will not be making much headway in reducing your electricity bills; you will need multiple panels together in a system.
- Inverter Costs - When you buy a complete system, it will include a component known as an inverter. The inverter takes the DC power generated by the panels and converts it to AC power you can use in your home. Beware that inverters can be rather expensive to replace. Follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter in order to extend the life of your inverter for long as possible.
- Regular Maintenance - In most cases, solar panels are virtually maintenance free and have a life of approximately 25 years. However, if installed at a fairly flat angle, dirt, debris, and animal droppings can collect on the surface and interfere with maximum operation. These types of situations require the panels be cleaned on a regular basis.
- Feed-In Tariffs - Currently feed in tariffs are available in the UK allowing those who utilise solar panels to get cheaper rates on electricity and sell excess power back to their suppliers. In order to take advantage of feed-in tariffs, your photovoltaic system must be installed by a certified technician. If you self-install you will not be able to claim the cheaper tariff.
It should be obvious that a higher output can be achieved by adding more panels to a system. However, keep in mind you might be limited in what you can do by your local building codes. When you hire a solar company to install panels on your property, be sure they know what the local codes are and they are following them.
Once your system is installed and fully functional, you can switch to a feed-in tariff simply by contacting your energy supplier and letting them know. If you do not think you are getting the best deal, you are free to shop around until you find one you can feel comfortable about.
Searching for a Solar Installer
If you are interested in joining the solar revolution at home, you will need a competent and qualified installer to do the work for you. It is important that you take the time to look around rather than choosing the first installer that offers you an attractive price. Remember that when it comes to home remodelling, you often get what you pay for.
Look around for several contractors and get estimates for each. The estimate should include not only the overall price, but also a detailed description of exactly what you will be spending your money on. Also, check the credentials of the installers to make sure they are government certified.
Be sure to ask each of the contractors for references you can call. Contractors unwilling to provide references are those you likely do not want to do business with. As for the others, hold their feet to the fire by calling the references and inquiring as to the service and products they received. Finally, you might go online and check local review websites to see if any of the contractors are listed.
When you finally select the contractor, make sure the equipment you are purchasing comes with a suitable warranty. Repair and/or replacement guarantees provided by the contractor are also a big plus. When the job is complete be sure to have the contractor test it for you and demonstrate is working as designed. The last thing you need is a system that does not work properly after the installer is gone.
Solar power in the UK represents just one of the exciting new ways we will be generating power using renewable sources. It is being deployed throughout the country to provide supplemental energy for homes, reduce energy consumption among businesses, and even power high-capacity electric generation plants. Who knows what the future will bring? It will be exciting, whatever it is.
Finding an MCS certified installer to help with your home solar project is not hard to do. There are hundreds of installers all over the UK ready and waiting to get to work. The following links will take you to directories where you can search for installers in your area.
Solar Contact - Finding a qualified solar installer with the experience necessary to complete your project is easy when you visit this site. Just designate the type of project you are interested in, whether it is for home or business, and the type of installation required and you are on your way.
Solar Trade Association - The Solar Trade Association is the leading trade group for solar installers across the UK. This link takes you to a page that will let you find member installers offering service where you live.
A comparison website is a great tool to help you find price comparisons on solar panels and installers quickly and easily. The following links are for a handful of those comparison websites. Feel free to follow each one when you are ready to start searching.
Compare My Solar - A site making it easy to compare prices for solar panels, other equipment, and installation. Just enter your postcode to get started. They even offer a tool to help you estimate your "solar potential."
The Eco-Experts - Offers a postcode driven tool enabling you to compare prices for photovoltaic solar equipment from MCS certified providers throughout the UK. Their site lists case studies demonstrating how effective shopping around for the best price can be.
Solar Panels UK - By following this link, you will be taken to one of the UK's leading solar panel comparison websites. Here you can quote prices for panels, determine the feasibility of solar energy for your situation, find MCS certified installers, or take advantage of a comprehensive buyers guide.
Solar Selection - Here you will be able to compare prices and get quotes for both residential and commercial solar applications. They claim you can get your quote within 30 seconds of filling out and submitting the form.
Money Saving Expert - The guide featured on this page takes you through the idea of free solar panels and how to select the right installer. This site is a wealth of information for all sorts of energy related topics.
Some people prefer to take the DIY approach to solar energy. If that sounds like you, we have compiled some links to sites where you will find "how-to guides,” DIY solar panel kits, and more. Check them out:
My Solar Shop - A site offering guides for constructing your own solar heating and electrical generation panels. You can also find step-by-step instructions, shopping lists, and even kits complete with everything you need for your project.
Heat My Home - A specialist solar company offering solar panels and complete project kits. If you need help, you can download an installation guide or contact one of their installation experts.
Solar Centre - An online solar retailer offering solar panels, inverters, lighting kits, solar gadgets, and more. This is your virtual solar department store offering free shipping anywhere in the UK.
UK Solar Panel Shop - This company offers you the best of both worlds. You can purchase your own DIY kit (currently they are offering a 10% discount on all online orders) or find a certified installer for your residential or commercial application.