How does solar power work?
Energy from the sun
The sun provides an abundant, free source of clean energy in the form of natural light and warmth. It is possible to capture some of this free energy directly to convert sunlight into electricity using solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.
How does Solar Power work?
Solar PV systems convert light into electrical power. They range in size from a few square centimetres, for example on calculators and watches to systems of hundreds of square metres made from interconnected modules that form an array. Photons in sunlight hit the solar panel and are absorbed by semiconducting materials, such as silicon. Electrons (negatively charged) are knocked loose from their atoms, allowing them to flow through the material to produce electricity. Due to the special composition of solar cells, the electrons are only allowed to move in a single direction. An array of solar cells converts solar energy into a usable amount of direct current (DC). The DC is carried through wiring to an inverter, which converts the current to mains AC (alternating current) which is connected to the property’s main electricity supply.
Solar PV systems are made up of modules, each typically around 1m x 1.6m. Solar PV systems can be designed to fit virtually any size and shape of roof or can be mounted on frames at ground level. Solar PV can also be mounted vertically and horizontally allowing the system to form part of the wall and roof structures in new properties, although performance will be reduced with these tilts.
Orientation and tilt
The ideal installation for PV Modules is facing due south at a pitched angle of between 30° and 40° from the horizontal. This yields the best overall annual performance. Installations facing anywhere to the south of due east and due west are feasible, although output will be reduced. Installation is not recommended on roofs facing north.
What do kWp and kWh mean?
Solar electricity systems and modules are given a power rating in kilowatts peak (kWp). This is the electrical power which is generated at standard test conditions (Irradiance 1000W/m2, Air Mass 1.5, Cell Temperature 25 degrees).
The total amount of electrical energy the system actually generates in a year is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh). This will depend on the system’s orientation, shading and location, as well as the size of the system (in kWp) that you have installed.
A system which is un-shaded, south facing and with a tilt of around 30-40° will generate around 850kWh/kWp per year. The average UK home uses 4800kWh of electricity per year on lights and appliances. However, an energy efficient home using A rated appliances could use considerably less than this.
|Quick guide to a perfect roof|
Each installation will generate differing amounts of kWh over a year. You can see the best roof example from the table above.
|Seasonal performance – energy generation by month|
The chart above shows a typical seasonal spread of energy generation for an average system of 2.2kWp facing south. The winter months generate significantly less electricity compared to the summer months.
The amount of electricity generated by a Solar PV system can also vary depending on where you live in the UK.
This diagram shows the total average radiation falling on a 1m2 surface mounted at an angle of 30° to the horizontal measured in kilowatt-hours per year (kWh/y).
Shape of roof area
Solar PV arrays are made up of modules of about 1.6m2 area which allows most available roof shapes to be accommodated. Average UK installations are around 20m2. For example a 3kWp system could comprise 12 modules taking up an area of 20m2 and will generate roughly 2550kWh per annum.
Any shadows on a single module will reduce the performance of the whole array as all the modules are connected. A system can tolerate some shading early or late in the day without much reduction of overall output but it should not be shaded between 10am and 4pm. Trees, chimneys, TV aerials/dishes and vent pipes are all common causes of shading and should be accounted for before any installation. PV systems do not require direct sunlight and generate some electricity on cloudy days. Typically in December systems may generate around 25% of the energy they yield in July.
Solar Photovoltaic cell types
There are different cell/module technologies with a range of characteristics, costs and benefits.
These are the most commonly manufactured type. There are performance variations depending on whether you opt for single crystal or monocrystalline cells/modules (often the more efficient of the two) or a multicrystal or polycrystalline cells/module, some of which have a marble-like appearance. Standard polycrystalline cells are cheaper to produce than monocrystalline.
These combine monocrystalline cells with another cell type, thin film, to give the best overall performance in varied light levels. Hybrid modules are more expensive than crystalline modules.
Comparison summary of different technologies
Hybrid panels often cost more to buy than the other types. However, there are many other factors that also affect the total installed cost of a system.
The efficiency of a solar cell gives an indication of how much of the sun’s energy is converted to electrical energy.
The higher the efficiency, the better the cell/module is at converting the sun’s energy.installation will generate differing amounts of kWh over a year.
You can see the best roof example from the table above.
Connecting to the grid
The vast majority of systems are installed in properties with an existing mains electricity supply.
The Solar PV supply feeds into your existing system and the electricity generated is either used in your house or is exported to the grid, depending on how much you are using at the time.
In the event of a power cut grid-connected inverters automatically switch off to protect any engineers working on the lines to repair them.
Before connecting a PV system the installer will inform the local District Network Operator (DNO) who is responsible for managing the electricity grid in your area.
Permitted development rights are a set of criteria against which certain types of development can be constructed without first having to apply to the local council for planning permission.
There are a number of criteria that, if met, will allow you to install solar panels on your property (or an outbuilding within your garden) without having to apply for planning permission. Proposed roof/wall mounted panels must not:
- Protrude more than 200mm beyond the wall or roof slope
- Be higher than the highest part of the roof (excluding chimney)
- Be sited on the principle or side elevation when visible from a highway (Conservation Area only)
- Be sited on the wall of an outbuilding which is visible from the highway (Conservation Area only)
A standalone/Ground Mounted solar panels is permissible provided it is:
- The only one standalone installation
- No more than 4 metres in height
- Situated more than 5 metres from the curtilage boundary
- No more than 9sqm (or 3m wide and 3m deep)
- Not visible from the highway (Conservation Area only)
All proposed panels (both mounted and standalone) must be:
- Sited so as to minimise the effect on the appearance of the building and the amenity of the area and removed once no longer needed
Inform your building insurance company of your installation, as they may need to note it as a material fact on your policy.
This shouldn’t increase your premiums but check first with your insurance company.
Very little maintenance is required if a well designed Solar PV system is installed properly. Modules should be checked periodically for obstructions such as leaves, excessive dust/dirt or bird droppings.
Build up can generally be cleared by using a water hose or by a heavy rain shower. Use of a pressure washer or detergents is NOT recommended and most build up is cleared naturally by rainfall.
Trees and vegetation may grow and cause shade to fall on the module array. This will adversely impact system performance and periodic pruning may be required to ensure that system performance remains optimal.
You can expect them to operate for 25 years or more, although the inverter may need replacing during the lifetime of the modules.
Once fitted, your installer should leave written details of any maintenance checks that you should carry out from time to time to ensure everything is working properly.
This should include documentation covering the main inverter fault signals and key troubleshooting guidance.
Consult with your Energeasy Solar installer for exact panel cleaning requirements.
System guarantees may vary: manufacturers’ performance guarantees on modern solar PV modules typically last up to 25 years. Standard inverter warranties are up to 5 years but extensions to this are often available. Installers may also offer their own warranties to cover their work. If the system is fitted to a roof with an existing warranty it’s advisable to check with your roofing contractor that this is not affected.
Find out more about Rexel’s 5 year production guarantee.