Introduction to Solar Panels
Since the dawn of time the sun has been providing energy for the planet, helping plants grow, warming the seas, and maintaining the conditions for life to thrive. In the last century and a bit, man has been seeking to develop new and ingenious ways to harness that energy in the form of solar panels, turning sunlight into electricity that feeds millions of homes.
Solar panels are one of the major technical innovations of our lifetime and are beginning to change the way we look at our energy needs, now and in the years to come.
In our quest for sustainable and renewable energy that leaves us less reliant of fossil fuels, solar energy and the development of efficient solar panels lies at the forefront of green technologies today. We see them being used for domestic houses and businesses but also produced on an industrial scale with solar farms that have transformed our landscape, bringing us ever closer to the technology that can make a difference to our lives and the planet we live on.
The History of Solar Panels
We have used the energy of the sun to make our lives better ever since we discovered how to magnify its rays to make fire. The Greeks used a system of mirrors to light torches as far back as the third century BC. The humble green house has been around for centuries and is simply a way of collecting the sun’s energy to create heat to grow plants, whilst the first legitimate solar panel was actually created way back in 1767 by Swiss scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure who used it to heat water and make steam.
The history of the solar panel is a reflection of man’s burgeoning ingenuity to use his environment in a safe and sustainable way.
How Do Solar Panels Work?
Energy travels the 93 million miles from the Sun in approximately 8 minutes, arriving in the form of light and heat of varying wavelengths. We can convert this sunlight into electricity by the use of photovoltaic cells that collect the energy. At the present time, these cells are normally made of silicon. When the sun strikes the molecules in photovoltaic cells it knocks electrons loose that generate electricity as they flow through it.
The great thing is that this process doesn’t require bright sunshine and hot conditions which means that a temperate climate like we have in the UK is just as good for producing electricity from solar panels as hotter climes like California or Africa.
Types of Photovoltaic Cells
One of our fastest developing technologies is found in the photovoltaic cell that powers solar panels and provides the electricity and heat used in our homes and businesses. Researchers and developers are working harder than ever to bring the price down and produce new technologies that decrease our reliance on fossil fuels. That means solar panels are becoming more and more viable as renewable energy generating technology.
Most commercially used solar panels currently use silicon photovoltaic cells in one form or another and they are judged primarily upon their efficiency at producing electricity and their subsequent cost. Pure silicon cells such monocrystalline have a high efficiency but also cost more, which may not make them suitable for use in domestic abodes. Hybrid cells, a mix of silicon and organic substances, have a lower efficiency but cost less.
Types of Solar Panel
There are a wide range of different solar panels available including tiles, slates, and lightweight films that all have their benefits and disadvantages when it comes to choosing the right solar energy system. Solar slates and tiles are becoming more popular because they are aesthetically pleasing, economical and durable. You can also get thin film, flexible solar panels that can be integrated into any shape which means that they have a wider range of uses, including on caravans and tents.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost?
With the development of new and more innovative technologies over the last few years, the cost of installing a solar panel system in a house or commercial premises has come down. There are also added benefits like Feed In Tariffs (FiT) that mean you can earn some money from your installation, as well as grants and loans that make the whole operation more viable.
Some companies are also offering free installation as long as they can benefit from the FiT once your solar panels are up and working.
One of the attractive things about having a solar panels system is that you can take advantage of the Feed in Tariff where you sell the energy you produce back to the grid, helping you to offset the cost and maintenance of your installation. This was introduced in 2010 by the government and the rate is determined by the size of your solar panels system. It is one of the main reasons why people are beginning to consider solar panels as a viable option for their long term energy needs.
Free Solar Panels
For those who don’t have the money to pay the initial cost of installation for solar panels, there are other initiatives that mean you can have the system in place for free. The catch is that the company that performs the installation then profits from the FiT which means you are not likely to make money from it, these schemes are getting harder to find now due to the recent reductions in the FiT.
Solar Panels: Return on Investment
The question most people ask when beginning to consider solar panels as a renewable energy source is whether it is worth it. Do the energy savings, and benefits of FiT, override the initial cost of installation? The problem when judging this is that you have to take a number of things into account including the location, the inclination of your roof, the size of the installation, the government subsidy avaiable and the type of photovoltaic cells used before you can factor how much you are going to save and when your initial investment will be paid back.
Whilst people want to be sure that they are lowering their carbon footprint when installing solar panels, they also want to be saving, in the long term at least, on their energy bills.
Solar Panel Cradle to Grave Analysis and Environmental Cost
Whilst it seems a good idea on the surface to have solar panels installed and reduce your carbon footprint, for such a big investment it helps to have some more in-depth information about the long term benefits across the whole life cycle of your system.
As a rule of thumb, your solar panels installation will probably last the next 25 years if properly maintained. Much of the research confirms that many systems will pay back the initial investment in a relatively short period of time and the benefits to the environment are substantial.
Commercial Solar PV Panels
Business owners have been sold on solar panels for a while now, aware that it reduces their energy costs, boosts their green credentials and often helps them generate useful income. Commercial premises with enough room can achieve as much as 17-22% in ROI from Feed in Tariffs and saved energy bills combined. There are also substantial decreases in the carbon footprint of businesses that opt to have solar panels installed.
Solar Panels: The Impact on Property Value
One of the more important questions that people want answered before they opt to have solar panels installed is what the impact will be on the value of their property, whether it be commercial or domestic.
While research in this area is still in the early stages, a recent survey has shown that more people would be prepared to pay a higher price for a property if it had a solar panel installation with a Feed in Tariff. Another piece of research concludes that having solar panels can help naturally increase the price of property as well.
However, there are other things to consider as well. If you have opted for a free installation with a company taking over the FiT then you may find that prospective buyers will be wary of taking on the contract.
Electronics for Solar Panels
There are surprisingly few electronic components in a solar panel installation but these will include: AC/DC Isolators, a photovoltaic system generation meter, photovoltaic cables and connectors, and a junction box. Particularly if you are going to undertake a DIY installation, you may want to take a look at how your solar panels operate.
How are Solar Panels Installed?
Before you even think about having your solar panels installed you will need to have an MSC and REAL accredited surveyor inspect your property and measure the roof size, inclination and shade coverage, what your estimated solar panels installation will achieve and how much money you are likely to earn or save. The surveyor will also asses the ability of your roof to take the weight of the new solar panels installation.
Can I Build My Own Solar Panel System?
You might think that building your own solar panel system is taking DIY just a step too far, but the truth is that it’s not as difficult as many people think. The problem is that, if you decide to build it yourself, your solar panel installation will not qualify for the Feed in Tariff. The benefit is that a DIY installation should be cheaper than having it professionally done and there are some excellent home kits now appearing on the market.
Legal Issues and Planning Permissions for Solar Panels
Because it benefits to the eco-system, if you live in England, having solar panels installed on a domestic premises is often considered as ‘permitted development’ which means that you don’t have to seek planning permission.
There are, however, requirements that have to be met covering how high it is installed and how much protrusion is allowed. Scotland has some slightly different rules but again solar panels are largely considered ‘permitted development’. From a legal standpoint, you will also need to contact both your insurance provider and mortgage company to ensure they agree to the installation.
Solar Panel Warranty, Insurance and Maintenance
As with any large installation, solar panels should come with a warranty and maintenance plan as well as being covered by insurance. Whilst the average life span of a solar panel array is around 25 years, many companies are offering a standard warranty of around 10 years but this will vary for different aspects of the installation.
Maintaining a solar panels installation is vital if you want it to last the distance, though because it has few moving parts this should be relatively low over the 25 year lifetime.