Solar Power Generation in the UK: The Ultimate Guide
The UK is certainly not known for its warm and sunny climate and it may not seem an obvious country in which to generate energy from the sun. However, solar power generation only requires some level of daylight to extract the sun’s energy, meaning Britain can still harness solar power during our frequent overcast and rainy days.
In 2017, solar accounted for 3.4% of Britain’s total electricity generation, up from 3.1% in 2016. Solar power is the third most generated renewable energy in the UK, after wind power and biomass. Worldwide, the UK is surprisingly the sixth largest producer of solar power after China, Japan, Germany, the US and Italy. In 2013, the UK was 10th on this list, showing Britain is increasingly utilising this sustainable and clean source of energy.
How is Solar Power Generated?
Solar energy is quite simply defined as energy sourced from the sun. The sun radiates incredible amounts of energy and in just a single hour, produces enough to power the world’s electricity needs for an entire year. Thanks to advances in technology, we can capture this abundant source of energy and utilise it to power our homes, businesses, vehicles and more.
However, capturing solar energy is still somewhat expensive and inefficient, hence the human race not being able to take full advantage of solar power just yet. Thankfully, this is slowly changing, as improvements to the technology are increasingly making solar energy infrastructure cheaper and more efficient.
There are two forms of energy that can be generated from the sun for our consumption - electricity and heat. Both of these are generated through the use of solar panels typically mounted on roofs of buildings or at ground level in vast ‘solar parks’ - also known as ‘solar farms’.
Solar PV Panels
Energy in the form of electricity is generated from the sun by capturing the photons in the sun’s light using ‘photovoltaic (PV)’ solar panels. These panels contain ‘photovoltaic cells’ that collect the sun’s energy which an inverter then converts into electricity we can use. This form of renewable energy is often referred to as ‘solar PV.’ Any unused electricity generated is fed into the national grid to provide to other consumers around the country.
Solar PV panels are typically placed on a south-facing roof of a home or building in order to maximise exposure to the sun. However, they will still function at a reduced rate without pointing directly at the sun, so long as some daylight can reach the panels.
As of 2017, the UK has a combined capacity of 12,318 megawatts of solar PV power - enough to power over 2.6 million British households. According to the The Solar Trade Association, around 800,000 British homes have solar PV panels installed as of 2016.
The rate at which they generate electricity varies depending on the amount of direct sunlight reaching the panels and the quality, size, number and location of panels in use. Solar panels on properties in the south of the UK are usually able to generate more energy than those in the north due to increased amounts of sunlight.
Solar Thermal Panels
Energy in the form of heat can also be captured and used for heating in the home. This is known as ‘solar thermal’ or ‘solar water heating’ and uses panels that are also mounted on a roof facing the sun. However, solar thermal panels work by heating water stored in a hot water cylinder to provide hot water and heating in your home. According to the The Solar Trade Association, around 250,000 homes in the UK have solar thermal panels installed, as of 2016.
Solar Farms in the UK
Solar farms, also known as solar parks or solar fields, are large areas of land containing interconnected solar panels positioned together to harvest large amounts of solar energy at the same time. They vary in size - often between one and 100 acres, and are located in agricultural or rural areas. Solar farms are designed for extensive solar energy generation that feed directly into the national grid, as opposed to individual solar panels which usually power a single home or building.
As of 2015, there were 426 solar farms located in the UK. The largest is currently Shotwick Solar Park in Flintshire, North Wales. Shotwick Solar Park is a 250 acre site with a total capacity of 72.2 megawatts and each year contributes to reducing CO2 emissions by over 202,000 tonnes, powering over 11,000 homes.
|% of UK’s renewables||UK homes with solar panels||Solar capacity annual growth|
|% of British public support||Average solar panel cost||UK Solar farm 2020 target|
|74% in favour||£5,500||2000 sites|
Five Reasons to Love Solar Power
Solar power has many advantages as a source of renewable energy. Here are just some of the advantages of solar power generation.
1. It’s Eco-Friendly & Sustainable
Like other renewable energies, solar power is entirely ‘clean’ as it doesn’t release any harmful emissions or pollutants. In fact, solar power does the opposite and contributes massively to reducing CO2 emissions produced by fossil-fuel powered energies. The Energy Saving Trust estimates the average UK home with a solar PV system installed could reduce carbon emissions by 1.2 to 1.7 tonnes per year. Multiply that by the current estimate of over a million homes utilising solar PV panels and the numerous solar parks in operation across the UK, and that’s a significant reduction in the UK’s carbon footprint.
Unlike fossil fuels, solar power is also completely sustainable and abundant enough to last us for as long as the sun exists. According to scientists, the sun will continue shining for approximately 5 billion years, meaning we won’t run out of solar energy for as long as we occupy planet earth.
2. It Reduces Energy Bills and Pays For Itself
Once solar panels are installed, homeowners can begin generating their own electricity for free. By signing up to the government’s Feed-in Tariff scheme, your energy supplier will actually pay you for each unit of electricity you generate, whether you use it to power your home or not. Alongside this, depending on how much energy the solar panels are generating, it is possible to sell or ‘export’ unused electricity back to the national grid. This will of course vary and depend on factors including the time of year, hours of sunlight during the day and your electricity usage. But at certain times of the year, it is highly likely excess electricity will be produced and sold back to the grid.
Thanks to the FIT scheme, generating your own electricity helps offset some of the solar panel installation costs and contributes to reducing your electricity bills. Over a period of 15 to 25 years the solar panels will have paid for themselves and then begin making a small profit.
3. It’s Accessible for ‘Off the Grid’ Consumers
Solar power is ideal for those living in remote areas where access to the national grid is difficult or not possible. Solar panels can be used to generate electricity in any location that has access to sunlight, making it a very flexible and accessible method of energy generation.
This is particularly useful for caravan or motorhome owners or those living in extremely remote areas for example.
4. It Reduces Reliance on Imports and Creates Jobs
Solar power generated in the UK reduces the need to import electricity from abroad. This not only creates energy industry jobs in the UK, but makes our energy supply and prices more secure, since foreign energy can vary in price as supply and demand changes.
Solar power jobs are another benefit of solar generation. The solar industry currently provides around 16,000 jobs in the UK and the renewables sector as a whole is expected to create up to 500,000 jobs overall by 2020.
5. Maintenance is Minimal
Apart from cleaning the panels a couple of times per year and occasionally replacing parts such as the cables or inverter, solar panels are very easy to maintain and require little ongoing maintenance. As they do not use any moving parts, the general wear and tear of solar panels is minimal and mostly caused by the weather. They also tend to last 25 to 30 years before they must be replaced, although many solar panel suppliers will provide annual service checks for peace of mind.
Three Disadvantages of Solar Power
Whilst solar power has many advantages, there are of course a few disadvantages of solar power generation.
1. It’s Expensive to Install
Even though solar panel costs have dropped 70% since 2010, installing solar panels is still a fairly expensive investment. To install panels on your home’s roof will still set you back thousands of pounds for the panels, equipment and installation costs. The major solar parks across Britain also require huge investments to plan and construct. The Cleve Hill Solar Park currently proposed for construction in Kent is set to cost around £400 million which will take quite some time for the developers to recoup.
2. Solar Power Generation is Unreliable and Inefficient
Since we are not blessed with a particularly sunny climate in the UK, solar panels are somewhat restricted to the amount of power they can generate. Although solar panels can still function on overcast and rainy days, their efficiency drops greatly during these times. Once the sun has set, they also cease to function and since electricity is expensive and difficult to store, backup sources of electricity are needed during the night.
Generation also varies quite significantly throughout the year. For example, between April and June 2017, the UK generated 6% of the country’s total electricity from solar, but between October and December, it was just 1.5%. Clearly generation during the summer months is far higher than during the winter months, creating a fluctuating source of energy throughout the year. Solar panels themselves are also fairly inefficient and of the sunlight that enters a solar PV panel, only around 16.5% gets converted into electricity.
3. Solar Energy Storage is Difficult and Expensive
Since we cannot generate solar energy during the night, it makes sense to store up excess energy generated during the day to use when the sun sets. Unfortunately at the current time, solar batteries are still developing and are expensive and inefficient. This means it often makes more sense to buy energy from the national grid, or simply minimise electricity usage at night.
How Much do Solar Panels Cost?
There are various different types of solar panels which can be used in different locations and for different reasons. Below is an overview of the costs of solar panels available in the UK.
Roof-mounted Solar Panels
Homeowners looking to use solar power can install solar PV or solar thermal panels on their property’s roof in order generate their own electricity or heating.
To install solar PV panels can cost anywhere between £3000 and £9000 depending on the size, number, brand and capacity of the panels.
The Energy Saving Trust estimates that it would cost an average size household between £5000 and £8000 to install solar PV panels on their property.
There are many suppliers of solar panels in the UK and even Ikea have gotten in on the act to provide low cost panels, starting at £3750.
To install solar thermal panels are often a cheaper at around £4000 to £5000, according to the Energy Saving Trust. However, the savings you can make on your heating bills are fairly low since they are not able to provide much heating in the winter and will need topping up from your conventional boiler. The Energy Saving Trust suggest savings of around £50 to £80 a year are typical for the average UK household with a solar water heating system.
To save on solar panel installation costs, DIY solar panel kits are available that provide you with everything you need to install and setup solar panels on your property. Solar panel kits including the panels, inverter, roof-mounting rack and cables cost anywhere between £600 and £4500 - a fairly significant saving compared to paying a company to supply and install them for you.
Solar Roof Tiles
To reduce the visual impact of roof-mounted solar panels, it is now possible to buy solar tiles which can replace your current roof tiles. Whilst they cost far more and are less efficient than regular solar panels, they are useful for getting around tough building regulations or for retaining the original appearance of a building.
Solar roof tiles typically cost up to three times as much as solar panels, so you could be looking at up to £10,000 to £12,000 for a 3KW solar tile system. The Energy Saving Trust claims that solar roof tiles can earn a homeowner around £7250 over 25 years, so they may not worth it if you’re in it for the money. However, another benefit of solar tiles is a boost in the value of your property. Research in the USA has shown values of homes with roof tiles are boosted by up to 10%. As the technology advances, solar tiles are likely to become cheaper however.
Solar Panels for Caravans and Motorhomes
Caravan and motorhome owners can utilise roof-mounted or portable solar panels to power their vehicle’s battery, generator, lights, fridge, television and other electrical devices when there is no access to mains electricity. In recent years, caravan solar panels kits have increased in availability, allowing year round off-grid access to electricity. Solar panels for caravans or motorhomes typically cost anywhere between £60 to £600.
Solar Panel Grants, Schemes & Tariffs
To install solar panels on the roof of your property is not particularly cheap at the current time. Homeowners can expect to invest between £5000 and £8000 according to the Energy Saving Trust - for both solar panels and their installation. However, there are ways to reduce this cost and recoup this investment over time.
Feed-in Tariff Scheme (FITs)
The feed-in tariff is a government scheme created in 2010 to encourage more people to generate their own renewable energy. The scheme enables homeowners to be paid by their energy supplier for the energy they generate and use through their own solar panels or wind turbines for example. This is known as the ‘Generation Tariff’. Surplus energy that the homeowner generates but doesn’t use can be exported to the national grid for an additional payment, known as the ‘Export Tariff’.
All energy companies with more than 250,000 customers must pay the Feed-in Tariff, although smaller companies can and usually choose to offer it. For the energy you use, these suppliers currently pay per unit generated in pence per kilowatt hour. The rates are set by Ofgem and the government and change often, depending on the capacity of the solar panels and the date on which your panels were installed. These rates change yearly to keep up with inflation, however you are guaranteed payments for 20 years under the terms of the scheme.
The original FIT rate when the scheme first launched in 2010 was 43.3 pence per kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity produced. However, it proved so popular that they have decided to cut it drastically in the years since. In 2012 it dropped to to 12.92p, then to 4.39p in January 2016. For solar PV systems installed between 1st April and 30th June 2018, the rate is 3.85p p/kWh. By March 2019, this is set to drop further to 3.64p. For the energy you don’t use, you can export to the national grid for 5.03p per kWh.
The Feed-in Tariff whilst less appealing than it used to be, still has the benefit of offsetting some of the cost of investing in solar panels, making it a more affordable solution to your energy needs over the long-term. In fact, between 2015 to 2016 the FIT Scheme paid out more than £1.1bn in energy generation payments. However, if you are considering investing in solar panels, do it quickly as the government is set to close the FIT scheme in April 2019. Customers already on the scheme will not be affected however.
If you live in Northern Ireland, the FIT scheme does not apply, however there is a similar scheme called ‘NIRO’ (Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation).
Government Grants for Solar Panels
Since 2010, there are no government grants for covering the costs of solar panels for homeowners in the UK. The Feed-in Tariff is their only contribution and incentive to the British public to invest in solar power.
Can I get Free Solar Panels?
When solar panels first became available to the mass market, various companies offered homeowners free solar panels in exchange for retaining ownership of the panels and the payments they produced from the Feed-in Tariff scheme. These were known as ‘rent-a-roof’ schemes and various solar panel companies launched to try and profit from FIT payments.
These days it’s very difficult to get free solar panels because the Feed-in Tariff payment rates were cut dramatically in 2016, making it less viable for companies to give away free panels.
Solar Power Scams
Whilst the vast majority of solar panel suppliers in the UK are reputable and regulated, there have also been reports of solar panel scams, usually targeted at elderly and retired people. Solar power scams involve unregulated companies and door-to-door salespeople over-selling and exaggerating about the benefits or financial savings of installing solar panels. Scams have been reported of companies installing panels on inefficient, northerly-facing roofs at vastly inflated prices - up to £18,000 for a retired British couple in 2013.
There have also been solar panel scams in the UK involving financing options, whereby crafty salespeople trick homeowners into signing finance agreements or contracts for solar panels with hidden fees and extremely harsh penalties for missed payments. These contracts may also be unbreakable once the customer learns that panels have not lived up to the promises they were sold on. Therefore, it pays to do your research before investing in solar panels and not taking up any offer by a pushy door-to-door salesperson.
Should I Buy Solar Panels for my Home?
Despite the initial outlay being fairly hefty, installing solar panels on your property can save you money on your electricity bills over the long term - thanks to the Feed-in Tariff scheme. However, payment rates for the FIT scheme have dropped significantly in recent years, meaning the overall time to recoup your costs has increased if you decide to install solar panels in 2018. Consider though, that solar panel installation costs have also dropped in recent years, somewhat balancing out the issue of reduced FIT payments.
Solar panels could set you back anywhere between £3000 and £9000 which is a significant investment for most. However, you can expect to recoup the cost within 15 to 25 years and begin making a profit thereafter.
Will Solar Panels Add Value to my Property?
Solar panels can also be a good investment in terms of adding value to your property and making it more appealing to buyers. They also have the potential to increase your home’s energy efficiency rating which according to YouGov is the third most important factor buyers consider when purchasing a property.
So long as you choose a reputable company and pay a reasonable price, solar panels are in our opinion, a good investment for you, your property and the future of the planet. However, if you don’t fancy taking on the cost of installing solar panels, you can still benefit from solar power by switching to a green energy supplier.
The Future of Solar Power in the UK
Plans for the largest solar farm in the UK are currently underway with the Cleve Hill Solar Park project in Kent currently being proposed for completion in 2020. If successful, it would be five times larger than Britain’s current biggest, Shotwick Solar Park in North Wales and increase Britain’s solar capacity significantly. Developers of the Cleve Hill Solar Park aim to be able to generate up to 350 megawatts of electricity that could power 110,000 homes and save 150,000 tonnes of CO2. It is also set to go ahead without any government subsidies and will be financed entirely by private companies.
There are concerns however that its sheer scale could also be damaging to local landscape, wildlife and increase traffic and pollution to the area. Whilst they are currently still in the planning stage (as of May 2018), it remains to be seen if these environmental concerns will halt or delay the project from going ahead.
UK Government Support for Renewables is Waning
Even though projects such as Cleve Hill are positive steps forward, government support for solar power has waned since 2016 when their support for renewable energy took a step backwards. To the frustration of many, the government announced that there will be no further subsidies for renewable energy projects in the UK - at least until 2025. This is in an effort to reduce spiralling subsidy costs and is likely to have a major impact on the number and scale of solar projects in the coming years. It is also likely to slow down the recent growth the solar power industry has seen in recent years in Britain.
Disappointingly, the government has also decided to end the popular Feed-in Tariff scheme in April 2019. Again this shows the government’s support for the solar energy industry in the UK is in decline and makes the future of Britain’s solar power capabilities uncertain.
Greenpeace UK have also backed-up the notion that the British government is holding back our solar energy industry through unnecessary tax hikes and reductions in subsidies for major solar projects. They have also called for the government to continue to support and fund the solar power sector to create jobs, reduce carbon emissions and increase our access to and use of green energy.
“The UK is missing its moment in the sun. Globally there has been record installation of solar panels. Solar technology is improving, costs are falling and forward-thinking nations are harnessing the power of the sun for clean, green energy. But UK ministers are stifling this cutting-edge industry instead of seizing the opportunity for jobs, investment and cheap energy.”
Subsidy-free Solar Projects
Britain may currently be ranked sixth in the world for solar power generation, but the government’s tax hikes and funding cuts to major projects will certainly slow down our recent growth. Despite this, subsidy-free, independent solar projects continue to launch and be planned for the future across the country.
There are a growing number of independent solar projects including the aforementioned Cleve Hill Solar Park who are pushing ahead without any subsidies from the government. The project is set to cost around £400 million which will be funded by two private companies.
All in all, it’s hard to predict the future of solar power in the UK. Although we have made great strides in solar technology, reduced infrastructure costs and increased usage across the country, the government seems set on slowing down this growth in any way it can. The only way forward at this stage appears to be through independently financed, subsidy-free solar projects. This, in combination with the continued uptake of small scale solar panel installations on British homes, should help ensure the industry continues to grow.
Which UK Suppliers Provide Energy from Solar Power?
Solar power is a growing source of renewable energy and there are plenty of suppliers in the UK offering competitively priced electricity generated by the sun.