Solar Power: Everything You Need To Know

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Solar power is an extremely viable and versatile way of generating green energy. Don’t let our reputation for gloomy weather fool you, the UK is big on solar power! Hundreds of thousands of rooftops all over the country are bedecked with solar panels. We also have hundreds of solar farms all over the country. But how does solar power work? Is it really viable and cost-effective for UK households? And how much solar power do we as a country produce? We’ll answer all of these questions and more in our guide to Solar Power.
Last update: June 2022

As you may have heard on the news, the UK energy market is currently under an immense amount of stress as a result of a global gas shortage driving up costs and putting several energy suppliers out of business. To learn more about this and stay updated on a daily basis you can read our page on the UK energy crisis.

How does Solar Power work?

Solar panels generate electricity using the principle of Photovoltaics (PV). The beginnings of the solar cell go back further than you may think! The photovoltaic effect was first discovered way in 1839 by the French scientist called Edmund Bacquerel. Decades later, Charles Fritts developed the first ever PV cell.

The cell was created by coating the semiconductor selenium with a thin layer of gold. It was expensive and inefficient. But the principle behind it was sound! Over the 19th and 20th centuries, numerous scientists tried to make the nascent PV cell more efficient, until the solar cell as we know it was introduced in 1954. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, they had become affordable and practical enough for deployment. All over the world.

But how do these solar cells work?

How do Solar Panels generate power?

PV solar panels use the same principle of photovoltaics discovered by Edmund Bacquerel. However, silicon is now used as the semiconductor rather than selenium. Every solar panel contains multiple PV cells all linked together.

Here’s how they work:

  • The solar panel is placed on the roof, typically in a south-facing position to get the most exposure
  • A PV cell is sandwiched between layers of conductive silicon (seeded with phosphorus), converting the energy from the sun into electricity
  • The top layer absorbs solar energy and adds electrons.
  • The panels outer layers create an electric field around the inner PV cell
  • The PV knocks electrons free from atoms, creating a flow of electricity
  • This electrical energy is then used to feed the home
  • Any left over energy can be stored in a battery or fed back into the National Grid

Pros & cons of solar power

Like all renewable energy sources, solar power has some great benefits, but it also has some limitations. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons…

Solar power pros

We may not have the world’s most enviable climate. But that doesn’t prevent us from having a huge solar capacity. There’s so much to love about this green, emissions-free and highly-renewable form of energy:

  • It benefits the planet: Solar energy produces no by-products of emissions, unlike burning coal or natural gas. The installation of solar panels can drive down a household’s carbon emissions by up to 1.7 tonnes every single year. Solar farms can also help support biodiversity as the space between them can be dedicated to rewilding, bringing small animals, birds and insects back to the area.
  • It leads to decades of savings: Sure, solar panels cost money to buy and install. But this is offset by decades of savings on your energy bills. In an era where many of us are paying over the odds for our energy, that counts for a lot. You can also sell excess energy you generate back to your supplier.
  • It helps people to live off-grid: Those living in remote rural areas, or in motor homes and static caravans may not be able to access the National Grid. But they can benefit from renewable clean energy as long as they have access to sunlight.
  • It’s good for the economy: Like other renewables, solar power generates tens of thousands of job opportunities within the UK every year. The more we develop our own renewable energy infrastructure, the less we have to rely on foreign imports. The net result for consumers is lower and more stable energy prices.
  • Solar panels can be recycled When solar panels reach the end of their lifespan, they can be recycled. As solar panels become a bigger presence in the UK, we can expect the solar panel recycling industry to grow.
  • Solar panels are low-maintenance: Solar panels are massively scalable. But whether you have 1 panel or over a hundred, you can enjoy clean energy without expensive or time-consuming maintenance. Solar panels have no moving parts, and their composition is fairly simple. This makes them both easy and affordable to maintain. Other than a quick wipe every now and then, the worst you’ll have to contend with is a little wear and tear caused by the weather and replacing the odd damaged cable or inverter. Your solar panels will be good for up to 30 years’ worth of continuous use with practically no maintenance.

Solar power cons

Solar power is awesome. But it’s not perfect. No renewable energy source is. If you’re serious about investing in solar, it’s important to ascertain the caveats as well as the benefits. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Costly installation: Although solar panels themselves have gotten more expensive in the past decade (dropping by around 70% since 2010), installing solar panels on your roof is still an investment of several thousand pounds. The upfront costs may be prohibitive to many UK households, especially as there are no government subsidies currently available.
  • You’re reliant on the weather: Contrary to popular belief, a solar panel can still generate energy on a grey and cloudy day. That said, they do generate more energy on clear, bright days. Of which the UK doesn’t exactly get an abundance. Therefore, it can be difficult to get consistent gains from your solar panels and your reliance on energy from the grid will vary with the seasons.
  • The amount of energy produced is limited Today’s solar panels are much more efficient than Charles Fritt’s early mode. Still, the technology behind solar panels still bottlenecks the amount of energy that can be converted to electricity. Of all the solar energy absorbed by your PV panels, only around 16.% will get converted into useable energy.
  • Solar panel manufacture generates emissions Solar panels may not generate any emissions of by products, but their manufacture does. The techniques used to create solar panels can generate both greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste water. However, there’s hope that as more and more of us embrace solar panels, research will be carried out into greener manufacturing methods.

Different ways of generating solar energy

One of the great things about solar power is its incredible versatility. There’s more to solar energy than traditional PV solar panels. Here, we’ll shine a spotlight on the different ways of generating solar panels:

PV Solar panels

At the time of writing, there are over 900,000 solar panels in use on rooftops all over the country. But by no means is this the only way to give your home the gift of solar power. Other solar technologies include…

Solar roof tiles

Some homeowners don’t like the look of solar panels on their roofs or worry that they might compromise the aesthetic of their property’s exterior. These households may want to look into solar roof tiles. At first glance, these look indistinguishable from conventional roof tiles. However, they have the capacity to generate solar power, using the same technology as PV solar panels.

However, these are much more costly to buy and install, costing up to 3 times more than PV panels.

Solar and wind hybrid systems

A common limitation of solar power is its lack of viability at night or during overcast days. However, supplementing solar power with wind energy can make for a potent combination all year round. Solar and wind hybrid systems combine solar panels with domestic wind turbines to keep you generating energy whatever the weather.

Solar water heaters

Solar energy can also be used to heat your water, reducing your reliance on natural gas or electricity when you wash, bathe or heat your home. Solar water heaters use thermal panels that capture and store heat energy from the sun, using it to heat water in a cylinder or tank.

Are Solar panels worth it?

There’s no denying that the UK has fallen in love with solar power over the past two decades. In 2006, our nation had a total solar capacity of just 12 megawatts. By 2019, this has expanded exponentially to over 13,000 MW.

The increased affordability of solar panels, and a growing renewable energy market have combined to make solar panels a more attractive and viable prospect for households. But they’re still not for everyone. In order to ascertain whether solar panels are worth it for you, you’ll need to consider the cost, how quickly you can recover that investment, and how much you can claw back via the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG). The Papernest team can help by finding the cheapest energy prices, and the best SEG rates on the market. But you’ll still need to do some calculations of your own.

The Energy Saving Trust has a handy calculator that you can check out here here to calculate your potential energy savings with solar power. Nonetheless, it’s still important to know about…

How much do solar panels cost?

The cost of solar panels varies a great deal. There are a number of manufacturers and models on the market, and the advent of IKEA solar panels and solar storage batteries has set a new benchmark for affordability. Nonetheless, installing solar panels is still a costly venture.

The cost varies depending on the size of your home, and how many panels you want to install. On average, UK households can expect to pay somewhere between £5,000 and £8,000 to install solar panels. Solar tiles are significantly more expensive, typically costing between £10,000 and £12,000 including installation.

Solar water heaters are a little cheaper to install at between £4,000 and £5,000 on average. However, they also take longer to pay for themselves.

If you are an accomplished DIYer, you may be able to install your own solar panels. DIY kits are available for as little as £600.

Grants, Schemes & Tariffs for individuals & companies

Unfortunately, there are no current schemes or grants to help mitigate the cost of solar panels. However, you can still get paid for your energy supplier for the solar power that you pump back into the national grid. This is via the Smart Export Guarantee, which replaces the Feed in Tariff as the mechanism by which suppliers pay their customers for the energy they generate. Through this scheme, many smaller energy suppliers hope to create communities of sustainably-minded energy consumers creating a carbon-neutral grid within a grid.

Although grants are not available for solar panels, you can claim against the cost of smart heating installations including solar water heaters.

If you plan to install solar water heaters, you can claim one of (or even both of) the following:

  • The Green Homes Grant- This grant can mitigate up to £5000 off the cost of renewable heating installations. This was originally planned to end in March 2021 but has recently been extended to the end of March 2022. You can claim for this if you are a homeowner or landlord.
  • The Renewable Heat Incentive- Originally extended to businesses, the RHI was made available for domestic installations in 2014. Under the scheme, households can get 7 years of support for renewable heating systems in the form of quarterly cash payments. Payments currently stand at around 21p per kilowatt.

Does it make sense to equip my house with Solar Panels? Is it viable in the UK?

That’s a question that only you can answer. It depends on a number of factors from where you live to your annual energy consumption.

Not every area in the UK gets the same amount of exposure to sunlight. As such, it may take longer for your solar panels to pay for themselves if you live in an area that is typically overcast for much of the year.

What average savings can you expect per region?

The south east typically gets the most sunlight throughout the year. People in places like Plymouth, Exeter or Truro may find that their solar panels generate enough energy to recover their upfront costs in just over 8 years.

You can see in the table below an estimate of your annual savings with or without the Smart Export Guarantee by region.

Region Annual Savings With SEG Annual Savings Without SEG
London and Southern England £330 £240
Northern England £305 £230
Scotland £280 £220
Wales £310 £230
Northern Ireland Not available £250

How much electricity can I generate with solar panels?

Most solar panel systems have a peak capacity somewhere between 1 kW and 4 kW. This is the maximum amount of energy they will generate under optimal circumstances (i.e. a sunny and cloudless day). On average, most domestic solar arrays will generate somewhere between 250 and 400 watts an hour.

How many solar panels are needed to run a house?

It really depends on the size of the house. A large house (around 2,000 square feet) will typically use approximately 967 kWh of electricity in a month. Depending on whether or not the property has a south-facing roof (which is ideal) and how much direct sunlight the property gets, it will need between 16 and 25 400 watt panels.

Grid integration & smart export guarantees

Very few solar panel users live off the grid. The vast majority use a combination of grid energy and solar power that they generate themselves. Via the Smart Export Guarantee, energy suppliers pay their customers for any solar power that they feed back into the grid.

The Smart Export Guarantee replaces the Feed in Tariff which ceased to be available to new customers in 2019.

The amount you are paid depends on your supplier, although Ofgem dictates that energy suppliers must always give you something for the energy you supply them.

You can see an up-to-date list of Smart Export Guarantee providers and rates in the table below:

Supplier Tariff Name Tariff Type Tariff Length Tariff Rate (per kWh) Payment Cycle
Social Energy Smarter Export Currently Fixed No Fixed End Date 5.6p 3 months
Octopus Energy Outgoing Fixed or Outgoing Agile Fixed or Variable 12-month fixed term Fixed 5.5 Variable tethered to half-hourly wholesale rate Monthly
E.ON Energy Fix & Export Exclusive Fixed 12-month fixed term 5.5p Unknown
Bulb Energy Export Payments Fixed No Fixed End Date 5.38p 3 months
OVO Energy OVO SEG Tariff Fixed 12-month fixed term 4.0p 3 months
ScottishPower Smart Export Variable Tariff Currently Fixed No Fixed End Date 4.0p 6 months
SSE Smart Export Tariff Fixed No Fixed End Date 3.5p 12 months
EDF Energy Export+Earn Fixed 12-month fixed term 3.5p 3 months
Shell Energy SEG V1 Tariff Currently Fixed No Fixed End Date 3.5p 3 months
E.ON Energy Fix & Export Fixed 12-month fixed term 3.0p Unknown
Utilita Smart Export Guarantee Unknown Unknown 3.0p Unknown
British Gas Export & Earn Flex Currently Fixed No Fixed End Date 1.5p 6 months
Green Network Energy SEG Tariff Currently Fixed No Fixed End Date 1.0p Quarterly
Utility Warehouse UW Smart Export Guarantee Fixed No Fixed End Date 0.5p Unknown

Octopus Energy also has an additional tariff in collaboration with Tesla. This pays up to 8p-11p per kWh. However,you need to use a specific storage battery which may prohibit you from changing suppliers in future.

Solar power in the UK

With almost a million solar arrays on rooftops all over the country, there’s a lot of solar power making its way into the UK’s energy fuel mix. But the domestic solar panels feeding energy into the grid pale in comparison to the amount provided by the UK’s 425 solar farms. The largest of these, Shotwick Solar Park in Flintshire, has a total capacity of 72.2 MW all on its own.

As of Q3 2020 (the most accurate details to-date), the UK’s energy mix is made up of 40% renewable fuel sources. Of this, 18.91 terawatts came from either wind or solar. Because Ofgem lumps these together in its reporting, it’s difficult to extricate wind from solar.

Which UK Suppliers Provide Energy from Solar Power?

Many UK energy suppliers include solar power as part of their fuel mix. All of the “Big 6” energy suppliers and many smaller green energy companies include solar power that is either bought from solar farms, generated using their own solar infrastructures, or purchased from their own customers via Feed in Tariffs or the Smart Export Guarantee.

If you’re looking for a 100% renewable energy supplier (which can help you to save the planet while also saving money), the following suppliers provide energy from solar power, along with other renewables like wind and hydropower:

Energy Supplier Energy Fuel Mix
Bristol Energy Wind, solar and hydro (percentages not disclosed)
Bulb 78% wind, 18% solar, 4% hydro
Good Energy 53.9% wind, 28.4% biomass, 13.4% solar, 4.3% hydro
Ecotricity 97.42% wind, 2.07% hydro, 0.51% solar
Green Energy UK Solar, biomass, hydro and wind (percentages not disclosed)
Octopus Energy / M&S 75.3% wind, 21% solar, 3.7% hydro
Orbit Energy Wind, solar and hydro (percentages not disclosed)
OVO Energy Wind, solar and hydro (percentages not disclosed)
Pure Planet 89% wind energy, 11% solar

The unpredictable nature of solar farming means that energy companies cannot rely on it entirely. However, it lends itself very well to supplementation by other renewables, mostly wind energy.

The Future of Solar Power in the UK

The UK, along with many other countries, aims to make its energy supply fully carbon-neutral by 2050. That means that we’ll inevitably relying more on solar energy and other renewables. Renewable energy is a growing presence in our fuel mix, and this is only likely to increase.

New materials that are currently in development will make future solar panels more efficient, drawing more energy from the same amount of sunlight.

There’s no doubt that the presence of solar in our energy mix is growing. By 2023, it is expected our total solar capacity will increase to 15,674 MW.

What should I know before going solar?

Solar power is potentially a great investment, leading to hundreds of pounds in energy savings every year (with the SEG) as well as the opportunity to generate your own clean energy. But is there anything you should know before going solar.

Here are some commonly asked questions that will help you to make a better-informed decision.

Do solar panels damage your roof?

Not if they’re properly installed. Which is why DIY solar panels should only be attempted by the highly accomplished. Failing to securely fit the racking could lead to water seepage in the holes. This could lead to rot that could compromise the integrity of your roof.

If you move house, taking down your solar panels could lead to damage, meaning that the new occupant will have to inherit them (and your SEG).

solar power

What is the average lifespan of a solar panel?

The lifespan of the current generation of solar panels is around 40-50 years. They are also covered by warranties that will guarantee their performance levels for the first 50% of their lifespan.

How often should solar panels be washed?

Natural rainfall is usually all it takes to clean solar panels. Especially here in the UK. However, dust, water residue and bird droppings can impede access to sunlight and compromise the efficiency of your solar panels. The occasional clean by a specialist solar panel cleaning service will help to keep them in tip-top shape. A good clean once a year will cost you between £100 and £200 depending on the size of your solar array.

How the Papernest team can help!

The Papernest team can help you to harness the power of solar. We can find you the perfect energy tariff from a supplier that leverages solar power. So you can save money while also reducing your household’s carbon footprint by around one tonne per year. We can also find you the perfect Smart Export Guarantee if you decide to fit solar panels. Keep in mind that you don’t have to get your energy and your Smart Export Guarantee from the same company.

We can mix and match to get you the best of both worlds. We’ll even manage your switch from end-to-end to get you cheaper, greener energy faster and hassle-free.

Want to know more?

Call us today on 0330 818 6225.

We’re available from 8am to 6pm.

Would you like to know more about green energy? Great! Check out these related articles:

  1. Energy mix
  2. Compare green energy suppliers
  3. Best green energy supplier
  4. Home energy


Who are the most trusted solar panel manufacturers in the UK?

There are lots of solar panel manufacturers supplying to the UK. However, some of the most trusted include:

  • SunPower
  • LG
  • Panasonic
  • SunTech
  • Sharp

IKEA has also recently joined the solar panel and solar battery market.

A 5.2 amp controller will give you a comfortable 1.25 amp safety margin.

How do I choose a solar panel for my battery?

When charging batteries with solar panels, it’s not just about the panels themselves, but using the right controller to balance your solar array and your battery bank. For example, an array of 4 250w panels will produce 1 kW. To charge a bank of 24v batteries, simply divide the number of watts by the number of volts (1,000 divided by 24).

How many solar panels are needed for a 2000 sq ft house?

That depends on the wattage of the solar panels. A house of this size needs to generate around 967 kWh of electricity per month. So, depending on the positioning of the solar panels (a south-facing roof is always best) you’ll need between 16 and 25 panels with 400w capacity.

What can a 300 watt solar panel run?

A single 300 watt solar panel that gets 8 hours of sunlight per day should produce almost 2.5 kWh every day.

This should be sufficient to power:

  • Your TV
  • LED lights
  • Stereos
  • Laptops

How many solar panels for a refrigerator?

Your fridge / freezer uses energy continuously. While newer models will offer better energy efficiency, on average you’ll need between 6 and 8 solar panels to keep your fridge running all year round.

Updated on 15 Jun, 2022

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