Solar panels continue to stand out as one of the most efficient and ethical ways for people to draw power from the world around them. Having a minimal impact on the environment, it’s not hard to see how this renewable form of energy has continued to grow in popularity.

But as far back as their inception, the same question has plagued those who champion the use of solar panels – are they worth the cost of manufacturing and installation? And, with notoriously cloudy and wet weather in the United Kingdom, is it a good location to install solar panels?

It’s a tricky question to immediately answer – especially if you don’t have all the facts and figures in front of you. That’s why, in this guide, we’re going to look at whether those living in the UK can really get the most out of solar energy.

We’ll explore solar panels in detail, looking at how they work, their advantages and drawbacks, and, most importantly of all, if they provide value to the average UK home. So, is the UK a sensible spot to try and utilise solar power, or will you soon find yourself out of pocket?

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What are solar panels and how do they work?

Most of us can quickly identify a solar panel when we see one, but how many of us can actually say we understand what makes them work? While the basic concept of drawing energy from the sun and using it to power homes and appliances is easy to grasp, it might be tougher to work out how those rays of light get converted into solar energy.

The panels themselves are made up of a series of solar cells – each of which look like small discs, made up of a semiconductor material like silicon. These cells are attached via a wire to a circuit. When light hits them, the semiconductors transform it into electricity, which will run as a direct current (DC) current through to an inverter.

This inverter serves as the bridge between your home and the panels themselves. It converts the DC to an alternating current (AC), which can be safely used to power your home. When no sun is shining on a panel, the cell will stop producing power.

There are a handful of options to choose between when it comes to the different types of solar panels. Here are some of the most common:

  • Monocrystalline solar panels. These panels are darker than most traditional options. They take up less space, last longer, and have a high power output. This makes them the best option for British homes.
  • Polycrystalline solar panels. This used to be the most recognisable type of unit, but has become outdated in recent years. Polycrystalline solar panels are square and blue. They are one of the most affordable types of panel, but that does mean their lifespan and efficiency is limited. They’re also more commonly used in industrial buildings, rather than on a home.
  • Thin-film solar cells. Easy to produce, and flexible to the touch, thin-film cells tend to work best in more commercial properties – where there’s extra space for them to operate.
  • Amorphous silicon solar panels. Most commonly used in pocket calculators, these types of panel will not cost you much, but also have a very limited conversion ability.
  • Biohybrid solar cells. These types of panels are still being developed. The concept here is for the panel to emulate the process of photosynthesis when generating electricity for a home.

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A solar battery can make the difference

They’re not cheap, but depending on your energy spending patterns, may very well be worth the investment. Adding a battery to your PV system enables you to use more electricity generated by your solar panels. Subsequently, this means you’ll import less energy from the grid, which can result in an exponential increase of your savings at the end of the month, given that there is a substantial gap between the rates paid by energy suppliers for your surplus energy and the rates you pay for electricity yourself.

Besides preventing you from importing electricity from the grid during the lower production periods (especially in the night-time), adding a battery can also give you a sense of relief. After all, it’s an assurance that regardless of what happens, you’ll always be able to power your home thanks to the energy you have stored in advance.

The pros and cons of using solar energy

It would be wrong to blindly support or disregard the use of solar energy. While ultimately a force for good, there are nonetheless still drawbacks to the technology. As such, it’s important to understand both sides of the coin when discussing whether this form of power is something which could save you money in the long run.

The pros of solar energy

  • It produces clean and renewable energy.
  • In one day, enough solar energy reaches the Earth to power it for a full year.
  • You’ll be able to harness energy anywhere the sun shines.
  • Solar panels have a sleek design and do not affect the landscape.
  • 90% of the materials that make up a panel are recycled.
  • Solar panels generate free energy.
  • Solar energy creates jobs.
  • The panels are easy to install, quiet and have a long service life.
  • Passive solar energy can also be produced.

The cons of solar energy

  • The cost of the initial investment. Although the investment can be covered in about 5-7 years in the case of areas with high solar irradiation, the upfront costs can be high. It is worth mentioning that there are alternatives for households that want to switch to self-consumption: such as financing through a bank or renting solar panels.
  • Dependence on the weather. While dependent on the sun, even in cloudy weather solar panels still produce energy. In these conditions, they can generate up to 25% of their full capacity.
  • Air pollution affects production. In areas with high levels of pollution, it has been noted that solar panels produce less energy.
  • The installation depends on the possibilities of the roof in the case of self-consumption.
  • The manufacturing of the modules is not a zero-emission process. However, taking into account that it is an energy that does not pollute, and that the panels can be recycled, these emissions can be offset.

If you still feel strongly about converting to solar power, it’s important you also understand all the costs.

How much do solar panels cost?

There’s more than one cost involved with introducing solar panels to your home. You’ll need to assess a variety of factors in order to work out the overall price of introducing one to your home. Chief amongst these are the cost of the panels themselves, as well as how much you’ll need to pay for the labour of installing them.

Here’s how much you can expect to pay for different solar panel sizes in the UK:

Panel Amount & Strength Installation Price 30-year Saving
385w - 5 panels £3,978 £17,000-£23,000
385w - 10 panels £4,817 £21,000-£28,000
385w - 15 panels £6,493 £25,000-£34,000
400w - 5 panels £4,038 £17,000-£23,000
400w - 10 panels £5,080 £21,000-£29,000
400w - 15 panels £7,073 £26,000-£35,000
425w- 5 panels £3,680 £17,000-£23,000
425w- 10 panels £5,460 £22,000-£30,000
425w - 15 panels £6,990 £27,000-£36,000

When it comes to labour and installation, one of the easiest ways to understand the fee is to think about it as a charge of 20p for every watt of energy you’re going to use. For example, the cost of a 3000 watt (3kW) system will be:

3000 x 0.20 = £600

You’ll also have to think about labour. On average, costs per person, per day will range anywhere from £350-£500. Naturally, the more complex your solar array is, the longer it will take for someone to complete the work. That means standard installation will range from £600 to anywhere near £3,000.

Just as with any home renovation, prices will naturally vary. Be sure to keep all of the following in mind when it comes to what may affect the overall cost of your solar panels:

  • The type of panels used. Different panels have varying levels of efficiency, longevity, and durability. That means you can expect to pay more for those which offer higher quality. It might be more of a hit upfront, but this could save you cash in the long run.
  • The size of your entire array. Likewise, the number of panels you choose to attach will impact costs. This will be represented by both an increase in unit price and the time it will take for a labourer to fit them to your home.
  • Adding additional components and accessories. You have the option to attach additional elements to a home, such as smart metres or a charger for an electric vehicle. While great accessories, these will also need to be factored into the overall cost.
  • Where your home is located. Where you live in the UK might also impact installation prices. If it’s harder for a company to reach you, or your home is in any way dangerous to access, this could see premiums rise.

How much can you save with solar panels?

Arguably the most important factor when it comes to calculating the value of solar panels is working out what kind of impact they’re having on your annual utility bills. The key is for this to offset the total price of installation and any upfront costs.

On average, UK households could save as much as £514 a year on their energy bills when making the swap to solar energy, with a minimum of £210 saved. And while that cost certainly won’t go that far to making back the cost of installation in year one, it does add up over time.

It’s also up to you to make installing solar panels worthwhile

To make your PV system even more worthwhile, you may need to consider adjusting your energy consumption habits. The best way to achieve that is to run household appliances that demand considerable amounts of electricity, such as the dishwasher or the washing machine, in the daytime. This way, their use will coincide with the peak generation hours of your solar panels. 

Increase your savings by selling your excess energy

What you may not know is that thanks to the smart export guarantee (SEG), households are able to sell back energy they generate (but do not use) to their suppliers.

The amount you’ll be paid will depend on the company you operate with, but the national average for 2022 was 3.99p for every kWh of energy you gave back. This meant most households would earn back a further £80-£110 a year.

Here’s a rough breakdown of what you might expect to get for your surplus energy, depending on which supplier you use:

Supplier SEG Tariff kWh Variable/Fixed
Octopus Energy Outgoing fixed 15p or 4.1p Fixed for 12 months
EDF Energy Export variable value 5.6p Variable
Bulb Export payments 5.57p or 3p Variable
E.on Next export 5.5p or 3p Fixed for 12 months
Scottish Power Smart export variable tariff 5.5p Variable
Pozitive Energy SEG tariff 4p Variable
Ovo Energy Ovo SEG tariff 4p Fixed for 12 months
Shell Energy SEG V1.1 Tariff 3.5p Variable
SSE Smart Export Tariff 3.5p Variable
British Gas Export & Earn Flex 3.2p Variable
Utility Warehouse UW Smart Export Guarantee 2p Variable
E SEG January 2020 tariff 1p Variable

Source: Money Saving Expert

Will solar panels save you money?

That’s a lot of information to digest, so let’s take a practical look at what someone living in Kent (one of the sunniest parts of the UK) can expect to save across the lifetime of their installation.

These figures – which look at the average costs and energy consumption across the entire county – assess factors like annual electricity spend (with and without solar energy or photovoltaic (PV) production), the price of a solar unit, the cost of installation, property tax, and how much you might be able to get for selling energy back to the grid.

Working off an initial installation cost of £7,160, a fixed annual rate of property tax of £700, and annual PV production of 4,271kWh (all being the averages for the region), they find that by year 7 you’ll have made a net save on your investment – with the figure rising to close to £8,500 by the end of year 15:

Year Annual electricity spend without PV Annual electricity spend with PV Annual amount sold back to the grid Annual Savings with PV Total Net Savings (after upfront costs)
1 £1,241 £514.93 £85.42 £811.49 -£4,873.93
2 £1,265.82 £525.23 £87.13 £827.72 -£4,046.21
3 £1,291.14 £535.73 £88.87 £844.27 -£3,201.94
4 £1,316.96 £546.45 £90.65 £861.16 -£2,340.78
5 £1,343.30 £557.38 £92.46 £878.39 -£1,462.39
6 £1,370.16 £568.52 £94.31 £895.95 -£566.44
7 £1,397.57 £579.89 £96.20 £913.87 +£347.43
8 £1,425.52 £591.49 £98.12 £932.14 +£1,279.57
9 £1,454.03 £603.32 £100.08 £950.79 +£2,230.36
10 £1,483.11 £615.39 £102.08 £969.81 +£3,200.17
11 £1,512.77 £627.70 £104.13 £989.20 +£4,189.37
12 £1,543.03 £640.25 £106.21 £1,008.99 +£5,198.36
13 £1,573.89 £653.06 £108.33 £1,029.16 +£6,227.52
14 £1,605.37 £666.12 £110.50 £1,049.75 +£7,277.27
15 £1,637.47 £679.44 £112.71 £1,070.74 +£8,348.01

Ultimately then, solar power can be seen as a very good investment for those who are committed to the technology. It may take a few years, but in time you’ll notice massive annual savings on your household bills.

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Grants and support schemes to help people afford solar panels

One of the best ways to mitigate the upfront costs of solar panels is by making the most of grants and bursaries available in the UK for installation. The Government is well aware of the need to transition to more renewable forms of energy – which is why there’s been greater focus placed on making green technology more affordable for everyone.

Some of the best options currently available include:

  • Energy Companion Obligation 4. This came into effect on April 1st 2022, the UK government has allocated £1bn per year to help improve the energy ratings of homes across the country. The money is specifically intended to help people replace heating systems which are less efficient.
  • VAT reductions. Also beginning April 2022, homes across the country will benefit from 0% VAT on the raw materials and installation costs of energy-efficient measures. This will extend across the next five years.
    Smart Export Guarantee. As we’ve already discussed, the SEG is the scheme which allows those who generate their own energy to sell anything they haven’t used back to the grid. This can save you up to £110 a year.

Are solar panels worth it in the UK?

In recent years, we’ve observed extreme volatility in the energy prices in the UK. Thus, many people figured it was only logical to find their own means to produce energy to generate savings and to gain a certain independence from the conventional energy suppliers. 

As seen above, many factors may impact your savings. Location and weather are on top of the list, together with others that shouldn’t be neglected, such as the quality of your equipment (a battery maximises savings, for example) and your energy consumption habits. Also, it´s important to know that solar panels can increase the value of your house.

Do you feel like you have a better understanding of the true value of solar panels in the UK?

If you’d like to find out more about solar energy, be sure to get in touch with a member of the Otovo team.

We’re on hand to guide you through every stage of the process, and can even point you in the direction of installers we know and trust.

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