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A Guide To: Solar-Powered Lighting

Solar power is perhaps the cleanest and most convenient form of renewable energy in the world. Solar panels use ambient sunlight to generate power. These panels can be installed anywhere that sees some sunlight during the day. Unlike hydro-electric, wind, or geothermal power installations, almost anyone can use solar panels and the panels themselves are relatively unobtrusive. In this guide, we take you through what solar power is, how it works, and the pros and cons. There's even a handy PDF guide for you to download that's packed full of helpful information to keep and refer to whenever you need it.

What is Solar Power, and How Does it Work?

Solar power has come a long way over the last few years, and you no longer need direct sunlight for panels to generate a respectable amount of energy. Simply having the panels exposed to ambient light through cloud cover will do. This means that you can use solar panels in the UK. Admittedly, someone who lives in sunny California, USA, will get better results from solar power than someone in London, England, but even a British solar power user will enjoy substantial savings on their energy bills.

Solar panels are made of semiconducting material. Usually, this material is silicone based, and the panel is sandwiched between two electrical contacts. The panel is protected from the elements by a sheet of glass or a similar transparent but tough material.

When sunlight hits the panel, the energy from the light is absorbed, and it knocks some of the electrons from the atoms in the semiconductive material loose. An atom is made up of photons, neutrons and electrons, and the electrons are the part that holds the positive electrical charge. Because of the way the solar panel is made, with one side being positively charged, and the other being negatively charged, the loose electrons are forced down one particular path. This means that as a stream of sunlight hits the panel, the loose electrons create an electrical current. This current is captured by the conductive contacts, and routed towards whatever device or electrical system it is intended to power.

What are the Different Solar System Types?

There are several different kinds of solar panels, and they come in different arrangements too. Each type of solar panel has its own benefits and downsides. The most common kinds of panels are:

Solar Thermal

solar-thermal-panelsSolar thermal panels work by collecting heat from sunlight and using it to warm up water, which is stored in a cylinder. A secondary boiler, or immersion heater, is used to increase the temperature of the water, or top up the water supply if you use up all of the water heated by the solar thermal system.

Solar thermal panels can be flat plate heat collectors that are fixed to the roof just like traditional photovoltaic panels, or evacuated tubes that can be routed around the roof to offer a small amount of heating in addition to the hot water benefit. These systems can usually fulfil the hot water needs of an average family during the summer months, but offer much smaller benefits in the winter.


photovoltaic-cellsPhotovoltaic cells are solar panels that generate electricity through exposure to direct sunlight or ambient light. The amount of power that a photovoltaic cell can generate is measured in kilowatts peak (kWp) – that is the amount of energy that the panel can produce if it is exposed to full, direct sunlight. The true output of a solar panel will be much less than that most of the time, especially in somewhere like the UK.

Polycrystalline vs Thin Film

Around 90% of all modern photovoltaic panels are made of some form of silicon. Crystalline silicon panels are the most common kind, and come in a few different varieties. Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient, especially in warm weather, but they are also the most expensive. Polycrystalline silicon panels are more affordable, and tend to perform better in cool weather, but their lifespan is significantly shorter if they are exposed to high temperatures on a regular basis.

Polycrystalline silicon solar panels are not particularly efficient offering module efficiency of around 16% on average, and you need to cover a wide area to generate a lot of power; however, if you are mounting the panels on a roof this should not be an issue.

Thin film solar cells are flexible and incredibly cheap to make, but they are the least efficient type of solar panel with the varieties on the market today offering efficiency of just 7-10%, so they are only used in areas where space is not an issue. For most homeowners, polycrystalline panels are the best choice.

Ground Mounted vs Grid-Tie

Most UK home owners opt for grid-tie solar panels that are mounted on the roof of their property because this means that they do not take up space in the garden, and they are out of sight most of the time. Roof mounted solar panels are quite discrete, and while they may not be approved of in a conservation area or on a period property they are not usually perceived as an eyesore in built-up areas.

Some homeowners are opting for more expensive solar tiles which are smaller and designed to look like ordinary roof tiles. These systems are very expensive, but for some people the aesthetics outweigh the cost.

The primary benefits of ground mounted solar panels are that they are easier to clean than grid tie roof-mounted panels, and you can change their positioning more easily. If your roof does not get a lot of exposure to sunlight, but you have a large garden which does, then ground mounted panels may be a good choice for you.

Pros and Cons of Solar Power

Solar power is a clean, sustainable form of energy that works well in most parts of the world. Solar panels can be installed on your roof, which means that they do not take up valuable space in your garden. The panels are relatively low maintenance, silent, and efficient. Once you have installed the panels they should generate energy for many years, and will pay for themselves over the lifetime of the installation.

That is not to say that there are no downsides to solar panels, however. The initial installation can be quite expensive, and if your home is in a shaded location the panels may not generate much electricity. In addition, solar panels work only during daylight hours, and they do not produce enough energy to run a typical home, even during that time. This means that you will still be dependent on the national grid for some of your power needs. You cannot say for sure how much energy solar panels will generate on any given day, because the weather greatly affects their energy output.

With all that said, solar panels are still worth installing in homes that have a large roof area that sees sunlight for several hours of the day. Once they are installed, the electricity generation is essentially passive, with only basic maintenance being required every few years. Can you really afford to pass up free electricity?

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