How Do Solar Panels Work?
Solar panels work by converting the sun’s light into electricity which you can use to power your home with free energy.
Solar panels capture the sun’s energy using photovoltaic cells. One solar panel is made up of many small solar photovoltaic cells.
To find out how much solar panels cost in your area fill in the form above. Our guide below provides an in-depth look at how solar panels work.
In this guide:
How solar panels work
Solar panels work by converting light from the sun into electricity using photovoltaic cells. Solar panels are made up of many individual photovoltaic cells, which are about the size of an adult’s palm. When light shines on the cell it creates an electric field which when combined with all the other solar cells in the panel, can then be used to provide electricity in your home.
An inverter is used to turn the DC electricity produced by the solar panels into AC electricity. This electricity is then fed through a meter and then into your home’s consumer unit. You get paid for generating this electricity through the government’s feed-in tariff. Your home will then automatically use the free energy generated by the solar panels, switching back to the grid when needed. Any electricity that is generated but not used is exported back to the grid for others to use - you get paid for supplying this electricity too.
What are solar panels made of?
Solar PV panels are constructed from a number of solar cells made from semiconductors such as polycrystalline silicon or monocrystalline silicon, both of which display the photovoltaic effect. Solar cells are then connected together to achieve a specific power output rating of solar panel. The interconnected solar cells are then protected with a weatherproof glass coating and the entire unit sealed to create a solar PV panel. Connectors are usually fitted to enable solar panels to be connected to external batteries and devices or to a complete solar panels system.
Most solar panels in the market are made of polycrystalline and monocrystalline. You can read more about these types of solar panel in the types of solar panel section below. Solar panels don’t have any moving parts, meaning they shouldn't require any maintenance over their 25 to 50 year lifespan.
As well as the actual solar panels, your installer will also use roof anchors, mounting frames and clamps to mount solar panels on your roof. Roof anchors are screwed into your roof to attach the mounting frame. The solar panels are mounted onto the mounting frame using the clamps.
Requirements for solar pv
Most homes in the UK are suitable for solar panels. If your roof is South, West or East facing and angled between 10 and 60 degrees, you home is likely to be very suitable for solar panels. Your roof will also need to have enough space for solar panels. As long as you have at least 8 sq m of roof space shade free for most of the day, you will be fine.
To see if your home is suitable and to discover how much your home will make by installing solar panels, use our solar calculator which uses Google Maps to identify your homes suitability.
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Types of solar panels
Crystalline silicon modules are by far the most popular type of solar panel; they account for around 90% of the worldwide solar PV production. The two most common types of crystalline silicon modules are polycrystalline and monocrystalline silicon.
As the performance of polycrystalline and monocrystalline panels is very similar, your main consideration when choosing what panel to opt for is the quality and reliability of the manufacturer.
Monocrystalline panels are generally more energy efficient than polycrystalline panels. However, monocrystalline panels also generally cost more. Unless your roof has limited space, you will want to opt for the type of panel that delivers the best return on investment by calculating expected output minus cost.
Powering your home with solar energy
As mentioned above, you can power your home with free electricity by installing solar panels. As solar panels require light to produce energy, your panels will only generate electricity during the day meaning you might have to think carefully about how best to take advantage of the free electricity. For example, if you use your washing machine during the evening or night when the sun isn’t shining, you will have to use electricity from the grid to power it; if you use your washing machine during the day it will be free to use as the electricity will come from the solar panels.
By thinking about the best time to use certain appliances in your home, you can make a significant saving on your energy bills. During periods where your panels are not generating power or your energy demand outstrips supply from the panels, you will use power from the grid.
Is solar power suitable for the UK climate
As solar panels use the sun to generate electricity, many people wrongly assume that the UK is not suitable for solar panels. Solar panels use light not heat to generate energy, meaning the UK is an ideal location for solar panels. The panels can still generate power in cloudy or rainy conditions.
As the summer months in the UK have more sun hours, solar panels will produce more energy during these months as they have more hours of light to produce energy. That said, solar panels produce energy all year round which can be used to power your home free of charge.
How long will they last?
Solar panels usually come with a 20 year warranty and most have an expected lifespan of 25 to 50 years. You should check with your installer about type of solar panel they plan to install and how long the warranty is.
Solar panels shouldn’t require any maintenance over their lifespan, however simple things like brushing off fallen leaves or snow will help improve their performance. In the UK, we have enough rain to ensure any buildup of dust or bird droppings are washed off so you will not need to worry about cleaning them in most circumstances.
Pros and cons
Guaranteed cash payments over 20 years
Through the feed-in tariff scheme, you will get regular payments for the energy your solar panels produce. This can be as much as £8,080 over 20 years meaning you can make a very healthy return on investment.
Reduce energy bills by 50%
As you can power your home with electricity from the panels, the average household will save around 50% on their energy bills. As energy bills take up a significant chunk of income and with energy bills predicted to rise in the future, these savings can have a significant impact on your finances.
High up front cost
Solar panels are an investment. Like most investments, this requires an initial investment up front. Whilst the cost of solar panels has fallen by 70% in the last few years (source: BBC), they will still cost you around £3,000 to £7,000 up front to install.