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In this guide, we will explore solar power and we will investigate how this sustainable, clean, and renewable energy alternative can be harnessed, used, and how we can benefit from it. Solar power is generated when the sun’s rays are converted to electricity that can be used within homes, businesses, organisations, and entire communities.
We will look into the inner workings of solar power, and we will delve into how different solar panel systems work. As well as how we can use solar power for home, commercial, industrial, organisational, and transportation use. We will also explore how to store energy, the policies and regulations that come with solar power and its environmental benefits, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels.
Browse the guide at your own pace or open the dropdown menu to click the links to jump to the sections you need the most.
Solar energy, also known as solar power, is the conversion of sunlight into heat or electricity. Solar energy is a sustainable and renewable energy source that harnesses the power generated by the sun to produce clean energy that we can generate in abundance.
The primary technology that we use to harness this power is the solar panel, also known as a photovoltaic (PV) panel. These panels consist of multiple solar cells made of a semi-conducting material, usually silicon. When the sun’s rays hit these cells, electrons within the material react and generate an electric current.
The electricity generated is DC or a direct current. For us to be able to use it within our homes, businesses, organisations, and the electrical grid, it must be converted to AC or an alternating current. This conversion is done through an inverter, which makes the energy compatible with standard electrical systems.
Any excess energy generated by solar panels can also be stored within solar batteries for future use, such as at night or when solar power generation is low. This can further increase your energy independence by making you less reliant on the electrical grid.
Solar energy can also be used to generate heat, through solar thermal systems. These systems use the sunlight to heat water or other liquids, to warm space or water, and to be used during industrial processes. They typically involve solar collectors that absorb and capture the sun’s heat and transfer it to a fluid.
Solar power has the potential to meet the world’s energy needs, and as technology advances, solar energy becomes more accessible and cost-effective for individuals, businesses, organisations, and communities.
Photovoltaic (PV) Systems: These systems harness the power of sunlight to generate electricity through solar panels. The panels absorb the sun’s rays, that cause a reaction that creates an electric current. The electricity produced is a direct current or DC and must be converted to an alternating current or AC by using an inverter. This system provides a sustainable and renewable source of energy that has minimal environmental impact.
Concentrated Solar Panel (CSP): This system harnesses the power of the sun through mirrors or lenses to concentrate the solar radiation onto a focal point. This concentrated light is then used to generate heat, which is converted into electricity through thermal processes. These systems usually utilise parabolic troughs, power towers or dishes/Stirling engine systems. To generate electricity, a liquid, usually oil or molten salt, is heated by the sunlight which then drives a turbine. Any excess heat is stored, so power generation can occur when sunlight is not available. This renewable energy system is mainly suitable for large-scale power generation.
Solar Thermal Systems: These technologies harness solar energy and produce heat for various applications, such as space and water heating, as well as industrial processes. They usually consist of solar collectors that absorb sunlight and convert it to thermal energy. This can then be transferred to a fluid or air to be used or stored for later use. The technology includes flat plate collectors, evacuated tube collectors, and parabolic troughs.
Solar Power Plants: These are large-scale installations that generate electricity through solar energy. They usually use solar panels or CSP systems to capture sunlight and convert it into usable electricity. These power plants produce renewable energy on a large-scale that contributes significantly to the global transition to cleaner energy generation.
Off-grid Systems: These are standalone power systems that operate independently of the electrical grid. These are usually used in remote locations where access to the grid is limited or non-existent, such as for camping. They usually consist of solar panels, batteries for storage, charge controllers that regulate the energy flow, and inverters to convert DC electricity to AC electricity.
Grid-Connector Solar Systems: These systems, also known as grid-tied or grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) systems, are solar powered installations that connect to the electrical grid. They allow the exchange of electricity between the system and the utility company. The energy generated is used to power homes, businesses, and organisations. Any excess electricity is fed back into the grid, where the owner will receive credits or compensation.
Hybrid Solar Systems: These systems are designed to combine solar power with another energy source, such as batteries or wind power to ensure a continuous electricity supply. These are usually used in areas with intermittent solar radiation or where there is a high demand for energy. For example, solar panels can produce the energy and batteries can store excess energy for later use. If there is a lack of sun radiation, there is a backup energy source to continue the energy supply.
Solar power systems consist of various components, such as solar panels, optimisers, and inverters. These work together to convert sunlight into electricity that can be used.
Optimisers are usually installed at each solar panel; their main function is to maximise the energy that can be harnessed by each individual panel. They do this by module-level power optimisation. They allow each panel to operate individually and mitigate against shading on the overall system performance. Optimisers enhance the power output of each panel and ensure the solar power system operates to a high efficiency.
Inverters are responsible for turning a direct current (DC) into a usable alternating current (AC). They are important in making sure that the electricity can be used in homes, businesses, organisations and can be put back into the grid.
There are different types of inverters that can be used in solar power systems, these are:
More homeowners are opting to power and heat their homes with solar energy, as they begin to understand the benefits of clean, sustainable, and renewable energy.
Installing solar panels on residential properties allows homeowners to generate their own electricity and reduce their reliance on the power grid. There is also the potential to lower their energy bills.
The potential production of excess electricity is one of the most significant advantages to residential solar power. If excess electricity is generated it can be fed back into the electrical grid through a process called net metering. Homeowners can receive either credits or compensation for their contribution to the grid, which will also help to further reduce their energy costs.
Excess energy can also be stored in solar batteries for use at night or when solar power generation is low. This can further increase homeowner’s energy independence by making them less reliant on the electrical grid.
Solar thermal technology that captures and uses the energy from the sun to produce heat can also benefit homeowners. As harnessing the energy of the sun to meet your home’s heating needs for both water and space heating, can help to reduce your energy bills and carbon footprint.
Solar panels and solar thermal technology can produce financial benefits in the long run. Upfront costs and installation costs can vary, however over their lifespan, owners will see savings on their energy bills. As technology is advancing these technologies will see a decline in cost, making them more accessible and cost-effective. The UK Government and utility companies may also offer grants, incentives, and policies that make the adoption of solar power easier for homeowners.
If residential users adopt solar power, they will be contributing to a greener and more sustainable future. Reducing their reliance on fossil fuels and decreasing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The commercial, industrial, and public sectors are increasingly adopting solar power as they opt to make their businesses and organisations cleaner and more sustainable. Solar power is a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution for meeting the high energy needs of commercial and public sector buildings, factories, and other industrial applications.
Businesses and organisations that incorporate solar power will see advantages, such as the reduction in their energy costs, as they reduce their reliance on the electrical grid. Businesses and organisations can benefit from these financial savings for long periods of time due to the long lifespan of solar power systems, including solar panels, solar batteries, and solar thermal systems.
Businesses and organisations rely heavily on a power supply that is consistent, for electricity and the heating of water and spaces. Solar power can provide a reliable and stable power supply, whilst helping to mitigate against risks such as power outages, breaks in operations, and grid disruptions. With planning and design, installing a solar power system can be used as a backup to ensure no interruptions occur during operations.
Businesses and organisations that opt for solar power can show that they are committed to sustainability and being environmentally responsible. Through this they can significantly reduce their carbon footprint, whilst combatting climate change and enhancing their reputation and brand image.
It is important to note that there can be difficulties, such as a lack of roof space, upfront costs, and the installation process can be complex. However, advances in technology and the decline in cost can make solar power a more viable option for the commercial, industrial, and public sectors. The UK Government and utility companies may also offer grants, incentives, and policies that make the adoption of solar power easier for businesses and organisations.
Solar power within the transportation sector is offering innovative solutions to reduce its carbon emissions and new ways to promote sustainable mobility. Solar power has been integrated into the sector by using solar energy in electric vehicles (EVs), solar powered charging stations, and solar powered transportation infrastructure.
Electric vehicles can be powered using solar energy. Solar panels can be installed onto the roof of the vehicle, harnessing sunlight to generate electricity that charges the vehicle’s battery. Solar panels enable the owner of the EV to travel further distances without having to rely on traditional charging methods.
Charging stations that are powered by solar energy, using solar panels, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by generating clean and renewable energy. Further emissions can be saved by incorporating solar power into transportation infrastructure, including streetlights, traffic signals, and parking meters.
Solar power within the transportation sector will not only create environmental advantages, but it can also help reduce the costs of operating an EV by providing a low cost, or even free, charging option. Solar-powered transportation infrastructure can also increase the resilience and reliability of the transportation system.
With technology advancements and the increase in investments there has been a significant drive-in growth within the transportation sector. Moving the sector towards becoming more sustainable, clean, and environmentally friendly.
Solar power is becoming increasingly important in urban planning, as it helps to promote sustainable development and reduce carbon emissions. Integrating solar power into urban environments offers benefits such as cleaner energy usage, lower emissions, and more resilient cities.
Integrating solar panels onto roofs or adding integrated solar facades on buildings is an important aspect in urban planning as it helps to generate electricity on-site. This approach reduces reliance on energy generated through fossil fuels, and it also improves the efficiency of the building itself. Clean energy then becomes available within densely populated areas, whilst reducing urban communities’ carbon footprints.
Solar parks can also be established in urban areas, these parks consist of large-scale solar installations, and are developed on land unsuitable for other purposes. Solar parks have the potential to provide a significant amount of renewable energy to urban communities, contribute to the power grid, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Community solar initiatives involve a shared solar power system that allows multiple individuals or organisations to benefit from the solar energy generated, even if solar panels cannot be installed on their own buildings. These initiatives help residents, businesses, schools, and organisations get access to clean energy, whilst creating a heightened sense of community.
The integration of solar power systems within urban planning helps the transition to a low-carbon economy and contributes to achieving the sustainable development goals. Solar power can increase energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create sustainable jobs within the local area. Within the community these systems can be used as an educational tool to teach people about renewable energy.
Solar power and energy storage technologies, including batteries, create a more efficient and reliable energy system. Energy storage plays an important role in maximising the benefits and efficiency of solar power, as excess energy, instead of being wasted, can be stored for later use, such as when solar radiation is low, or the energy demand is high.
Energy storage bridges the gap between needing electricity and the sun’s availability, through storing excess energy. Batteries are used for this purpose, as excess energy can be stored within them. When there is insufficient power available or demand is particularly high, energy stored within these batteries can be released to meet the required needs.
The use of energy storage can offer several advantages including energy self-sufficiency and independence. Users of these batteries rely less on the electrical grid, as they can opt for stored energy instead. This increases resilience, as it protects them from power outages, whilst also lowering energy costs.
Energy storage systems can also increase the stability and reliability of the electrical grid, as it helps to balance supply and demand.
Solar power systems can be optimised through the use of energy storage, as owners can develop their production and consumption patterns. This maximises the utilisation of the energy generated, and waste is reduced.
Understanding the financial and economic aspects of solar power is essential for individuals, businesses, organisations, and policymakers who are evaluating the adoption of solar power. Solar power economics encompasses various factors that will help to identify whether installing a solar energy system is financially viable.
The upfront cost for the installation of a solar power system is something to take into consideration. In recent years the price of these systems has seen a decline, due to advancements in technology, making them more accessible to a wider range of consumers. Installation has also become a competitive industry, with a larger number of qualified installers and streamlined processes.
Return on investment (ROI) depends on several factors such as the upfront investment, the energy savings generated, and the potential income from any excess electricity that is sold back into the electrical grid.
The cost of electricity generated by different sources over the lifetime of a solar power system is shown through the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE). The LCOE considers the installation costs, the maintenance expenses that occur during the systems lifespan, and the electricity output. Solar power, however, has seen a significant decline in LCOE, as it becomes increasingly competitive with traditional fossil fuel electricity generation. In many places, solar power is already cost-competitive or the cheaper option.
Solar power can produce long-term cost stability, as it relies on sunlight which is in abundance and is free. Solar power can protect people from the rise in energy costs and can provide energy costs that are predictable. This stability and predictability can provide huge benefits for individuals, businesses, and organisations who wish to mitigate against cost fluctuations and improve their financial planning.
With falling installation costs, favourable return of investment and declining LCOE, solar power is an attractive and economically viable option for individuals, businesses, and organisations. As technology advances, the economic benefits will continue to increase.
Compared to traditional energy sources, solar power has a significant positive environmental impact. This is because solar power systems offer a clean and renewable alternative to fossil fuel energy generation, which causes challenges within the environment.
One of the biggest benefits that comes with solar power is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity is produced through solar power systems without the need to burn fossil fuels, that are the main source of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. By incorporating solar power, it can help to mitigate climate change and reduce the energy sector’s carbon footprint.
Solar power also reduces air pollution. Traditional power plants use coal or natural gas to produce electricity, which releases pollutants into the atmosphere, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. Solar power systems don’t produce these emissions, contributing to better and cleaner air quality, which has a positive impact on public health.
Traditional energy sources use large amounts of water, such as in conventional power plants, for cooling purposes. However solar power uses significantly less, as none is needed. This reduces the strain on water supplies and conserves the resource for other uses.
Solar power systems have minimal impact on land and ecosystems, as they can be installed onto infrastructure that is already there, for example solar panels on homes or buildings. For larger scale solar power farms, these can be developed on land that is not in use or land that has already been disturbed. This helps to preserve natural areas and minimises the need to destroy habitats.
Solar power generation also produces minimal noise pollution, as they operate quietly. Therefore, creating a peaceful environment for surrounding communities, if on a large scale. On a smaller scale, solar power generation doesn’t disturb those working in buildings or those within their homes if installed on roofs in the form of solar panels.
The UK has a range of policies, incentives, and regulations to encourage individuals, businesses, and organisations to adopt solar power and support the growth of renewable energy use. These measures have been put in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy security, and promote the transition to a low-carbon economy.
A key policy within the UK was the Feed-in Tariff, also known as the FiT scheme. Homeowners, businesses, organisations, and communities that were eligible for the scheme received payments for the electricity they generated from a renewable source, such as solar power, that was then fed back into the grid. This scheme provided financial incentives to encourage the installation of renewable energy systems, including solar panels.
In 2020, this was replaced by the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG). This scheme requires larger electricity suppliers to offer tariffs to small-scale solar power generators, for any excess electricity they export to the grid. This allows owners of solar power systems to receive fair compensation for the electricity they put back into the grid.
Net metering is an aspect of the UK’s regulations that allows owners of solar power systems to offset their electricity bills by exporting any excess electricity they generate into the grid. Encouraging self-consumption of renewable energy, whilst providing financial benefits.
Along with these policies the UK Government also offers tax incentives. For example, the UK Government provided a financial incentive to households, businesses, and public sector organisations through their Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). To be eligible, a renewable heating system, such as a solar thermal system, needed to be installed into a home or building.
This has now been replaced by the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, similar to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), the UK Government offers a grant to cover part of the cost in replacing a fossil fuel heating system with a renewable system. To see if you are eligible see the Gov.uk website for more details: https://www.gov.uk/apply-boiler-upgrade-scheme.