What is solar energy?

Solar energy is produced when light from the sun is turned into electricity that can be used to power homes, businesses, and even electric vehicles. Unlike traditional fossil fuel, it’s one of many renewable energy resources that can be produced with no carbon emissions.

Here’s everything you need to know about solar energy and how it can be used to build a greener Britain. 

What are solar panels?

Solar panels, sometimes called photovoltaics (PV), capture energy from the sun using photovoltaic cells. They absorb light from the sun, which is then converted into electricity that can be used to power your home.

Domestic solar panels can be fitted to your roof, so you can generate your own electricity at home. While commercial solar farms or sun parks are built on a much larger scale, to put green electricity back into the grid – like our sunmills.

Solar panels don’t need direct sunlight to work – they can absorb daylight, even on a cloudy day. But they work best when positioned in direct sunlight, so you’ll get the most from them if they’re south facing. 

How is solar power produced?

Solar panels are made from thin slices of silicon, and the sun’s rays consist of photons. When the photons from the sun hit the silicon, this creates an electrical charge. The charge is then collected to form an electrical current.

The solar power then gets passed through an inverter, which converts the direct current (DC) into an alternating current (AC). This process makes the electricity suitable for home use, and it can then be used to power buildings.

How can solar power be used?

Solar power can be stored and used, just like electricity generated from fossil fuels, to:

  • Power your home. The electricity produced by solar energy can run your whole home – everything from your lamp to your TV can be powered by energy from the sun.
  • Heat your home. Solar thermal panels absorb energy from the sun to heat water, which can then be used in radiators, showers, washing machines and dishwashers. 
  • Charge electric vehicles. The only way for electric cars to run truly emissions free is if they’re charged with 100% green energy. Solar power can provide enough electricity for you to charge electric vehicles at home.

You can even get paid to generate your own solar power. The government’s Feed-in Tariff (FiT) scheme pays for the solar energy you generate, along with anything you put back into the grid. Find out more about getting paid to generate your own green electricity.

Advantages of solar energy

  • 100% green energy. If we have any hope of combatting climate change, we need to clean up the grid and reduce our dependence on dirty energy from fossil fuels. The biggest advantage of solar energy is that it’s good for the planet.
  • Energy independence. We rely on unstable parts of the world for our energy supplies – and are therefore exposed to frequently volatile global energy markets. Making energy from the sun can help us to achieve energy independence.
  • Sustainability. Unlike shale gas extracted in fracking, solar power won’t run out. It can also be produced without harming the environment or disrupting local wildlife habitats.

Are there any disadvantages?

Building large solar plants is expensive, and getting planning permission to produce large-scale solar power is also a challenge – our current infrastructure still favours digging for fossil fuels over renewable energy. The government simply isn’t providing enough funding to research and build renewable sources of energy.

Domestic solar panels are also pretty expensive to install on an individual scale – although, the money saved on your energy bills will ultimately offset the cost of installation. But the government plan to cut FiT payments from March 2019, which means anyone who installs solar panels after this date may not get paid for the electricity they generate.

Future of solar energy in the UK

The British government has been given a wakeup call by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If we have any hope of reversing the effects of climate change, we need to stop relying on fossil fuels and start investing in renewable energy sources.

At Ecotricity, we plan to continue using the money from your energy bills to develop new sources of green energy – including wind and solar power. The first sunmill we built consists of 5,157 solar panels joined together, and it occupies almost five acres of land – we’ve got more in planning. And as panel efficiency increases over time, the number of panels required to produce the same amount of energy will decrease.

The energy payback for solar power technology (that’s the amount of time it takes to get back the energy used in manufacturing and installation) is around two years. And after that, sun parks can provide clean energy with zero carbon emissions for the next 25 years.

Reasons to switch