Solar energy is widely regarded as one of the best types of renewable energy because it is relatively low cost, suitable almost everywhere, and low maintenance. However, like with anything else, solar is not perfect.
Whether you’re considering solar panels for your home, business, or even a larger investment, there are pros and cons that you should consider.
The following guide should help you decide if solar is right for you.
First, What Are The Cons of Solar Panels?
While there are plenty of advantages to installing solar panels, the cons are important to consider as well. Understanding the issues will allow you to choose better quality panels, make better decisions when purchasing panels, and choose the best option for your home.
Upfront Costs – It’s no secret that solar panels are expensive to install. In fact, the average homeowner can expect to pay a minimum of about £2,000 per Kw of power generating capacity. This means that the average 4Kw solar system costs £6-8,000, although you can find a cheaper solution by shopping around and comparing your options. And, more importantly, very high quality solar panels cost more. You will have to invest, and with no real solar grant programs in the UK, that investment will likely be either through a loan or through your own savings. This is daunting for many homeowners, especially considering that it will take years to pay your panels off.
Carbon Production – While solar panels offset a significant amount of carbon production, they still produce carbon themselves. This is important to remember when comparing different types of green energy, and when choosing the best option for your home. Carbon is produced during mining for materials, during the smelting and production process, when creating the metal frames, when producing glass, during silicone production, and when transporting the panels to and from your home. The National Grid PLC estimates that solar panels produce an average of 88 grams of C02 per kWh of energy they produce when averaged out over 20 years.
Cost per Kilowatt of Power – In some cases, solar power can cost more per kWh of power to produce than other renewable incentives. Solar panels cost an average of £125-180 per mW/h versus wind which costs an average of £80-100 per mW/h. However, because wind does not install well onto most urban residences, it’s not a consideration if you live in a city or suburban area.
Energy Storage – Solar panels primarily produce energy when the sun is out, which means that the most energy is produced during the day, with the most efficient solar panels turning 20.1% of the suns energy into electric. Because the average homeowner uses the most power at night, this can be disadvantageous for homes where everyone in the home works or is away during the day. This is important for some, because the FIT rate and Export tariff are lower than the cost of energy. In short, while it’s more cost effective to use as much energy as-is possible, most homes are likely to export more of it to the grid where it is worth half the value. However, this can be advantageous for homes where someone is at home during the day and can clean and run washing machines and other high energy consumption devices while the sun is out.
Space – Solar panels require a lot of space to install which so they are unsuited for many homes. An ideal rooftop for solar panels is south facing and at a 40 degree pitch. While it is possible to install panels in other directions and at other pitches, they will not be as productive as an ideally installed panel. In addition, you can estimate that you need an average of 1.239-1.44 square meters of space per panel. Because the average 3-4kW system contains 14-18 panels, you will likely need a suitable space of 20-30 square meters to install a solar array.
Aesthetics – Most people think solar panels are ugly. While this is a personal preference, you may not be able to sell a home as quickly if it has solar panels on it, despite the renewable energy incentive. While solar panels are now installed close together, are a uniform colour, and often fit very closely to the roof, you might not like how they look. However, if generating clean energy and saving money is your primary goal, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Manufacturing – Solar panels can be produced in a wide variety of conditions, which use different amounts of energy. If you are concerned about manufacturing issues, it is important to choose a reputable brand with quality production methods. For the most part, large brands actually compete to reduce energy and offer quality conditions in factories, in order to create the most environmental sustainability and to reduce long-term costs.
Intermittent Energy Production – Solar panels, like other types of renewable energy produce intermittent energy. While most people know that solar panels only produce energy during the day, you also have to consider that the weather and even the seasons will affect your energy output. For example, your energy production will drop on cloudy days, and your energy production will be lower between November and January and highest between June and the end of August. Some months you may even produce more than twice the power you produce in other months.
Efficiency Levels – Efficiency can vary a great deal between solar panels. While you may know that you want to purchase a high efficiency solar panel so that your solar array produces more power, you might not know exactly what that means. Most panels feature an efficiency rating and a wattage rating. The wattage rating is still the most important, because a 200 watt panel will produce 200 watts no matter what. But a 200 watt panel with a 17.9% efficiency is smaller than a 200 watt panel with a 14% efficiency. Why? Efficiency refers to how well the solar cells collect light. This is also something to watch out for, because a solar cell efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean panel efficiency.
Possible Unexpected Costs – In some cases, you may have to pay for site preparation. For example, if your home’s electrical system or roof are not capable of supporting the solar panels. In most cases, any issues will be identified during the initial inspection of the home, so unexpected costs are rare, but still a possibility.
And The More Positive Pros of Solar Energy
Now that you know the disadvantages of installing solar, you can learn about the pros. Like any renewable energy, solar is an excellent choice, and it has more than its share of positive points. In fact, solar compares very well to hydro and wind generated electricity, with some additional benefits for homeowners.
Renewable – Everyone knows that solar energy is renewable, but what does that mean? Solar energy comes from the sun, and it is a renewable resource because our supply of it never runs out. It is naturally occurring, does not require additional money to keep running except for occasional maintenance, and does not take away from existing resources. In fact, solar PV power is just light. When light bounces off of a solar PV cell, the cell scatters the electrons in red and violet wavelengths. These electrons are caught up in the electric field between the positive and negative layers of the solar cell, and are then moved through conductors to create an electric current. Producing solar energy has no more impact than tanning when you consider it in the moment.
Safe for Wildlife – While some technologies like hydropower and wind turbines create a hazard for fish and birds, solar panels do not. In fact, when installed on a roof, solar panels negligibly impact the environment. When installed on the ground or on mounts, they can offer shading, but no other real impact. That’s very beneficial for both urban and rural areas.
Readily Available – Solar panels are easy to find and to install, and you will likely have a wide range of choices and options. This makes it easy to get started, and more affordable, because you will have the benefit of competitive offers and more options. Solar panels are available in a wide range of different sizes, starting from as low as 50 watts, and going up to nearly 400 watts. They also range in efficiency from about 12% to 22.1%. This allows you to choose panels based on size, brand, efficiency, and production.
Homeowner Friendly – Most solar panels can be installed without applying for city planning permission. If the panels are set up in a yard or project over the roof, they do require planning, but normal rooftop panels typically require very little paperwork at all.
Reduces Electric Bill – The average homeowner saves between 10 and 30% off of their yearly electric bill using solar panels. While this rate isn’t extreme, this is for a normal household, where most electric is used at night, when panels are not producing. If you’re paying the national average of 11 pence per kWh, that averages out to saving £120 a year on your electric bill, and considerably more if you frequently use your electric during the day.
FIT – The Feed in Tariff and Export Tariff allow you to earn money with your panels even when you’re not using them. This is highly beneficial no matter how much of your energy you actually use. While the FIT rate changes every quarter, your rate is locked in for 20 years based on the rate when you first installed panels. The sooner you install your panels, the higher your FIT rate.
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Silent – Solar panels make little to no noise while in operation. This is ideal for domestic installations, where keeping noise to a minimum is the best option. It’s also a stark contrast to wind turbines, which can be very noisy. In some cases, your inverter may hum, but it is typically installed inside of a cabinet, and you will most likely not even hear it.
Low Maintenance – Most solar panels require minimal maintenance and will likely not require any real investments over their lifetime. You will have to occasionally clean the panels to ensure that they continue to produce energy, but rooftop mounted panels rarely get dirty. If you have a ground mounted system, you will have to clean more frequently. You will also have to inspect the panels every 3-6 months to ensure that the wiring and the cells are in good condition. In most cases, the inverter is the weakest link in the solar system, and it is the thing that is most likely to break down. However, most inverters are protected by a 10 year warranty.
Easy to Install – You can have a 4kW solar array installed on your home in the course of a single day. While you will likely have to make time for inspections to ensure that the home is suitable, an EPC inspection so that you qualify for the Feed in Tariff, and for materials to be delivered, the entire installation can typically be completed in a matter of four to five hours.
Improving Efficiency Rates – While the installation cost of solar panels has dropped more than 70% since 2010, panels have become more efficient and can produce considerably more energy per panel. Solar cells are a well developed technology, but it continues to improve, and the panels that you can purchase today are already a vast improvement over those from a decade ago.
25 Year (or longer) Lifespan – Most solar panels come with a 25 year manufacturer’s power production warranty guaranteeing that they will produce a minimum of 80% of their rated electric at 25 years after purchase. Solar panels last a minimum of 25 years barring accident or natural disaster, which means that you have a long term investment that will continue to provide power after the panels pay themselves off. Most manufacturers offer a 5-10 year product warranty plus a power guarantee, which ensures that your investment is safe. And, if you have insurance, an accident will not be a problem.
Good Return for the Investment – If you get a good deal on your solar panels, you can install a 4kW system for as little as £6,000-8,000 for the total system. With normal usage, where you primarily use your power at night, and earn the current FIT rate, and the current electric rate, while feeding 50% of your generated power back into the grid for the Export tariff, you can earn an average of a 4.8% return, which is comparable with an ISA and similar investment accounts. That’s a big deal for something that will also help the environment, without really impacting your daily life. If the cost of electric goes up, your savings will go up as well. And, if you use more energy during the day, you will save more as well.
A Big Environmental Impact – While solar panels are responsible for carbon production, it is significantly lower than that of most other power sources. While some, such as nuclear and wind can offer lower carbon emissions, solar is still impressively green. Most commercial power stations produce an average of 392 grams of Co2 per kWh of energy produced, and considerably more if they are coal plants. Meanwhile, solar is responsible for just 88 grams of C02 per kWh when calculated at 25 years of energy production, and lower if the panels produce for longer. In short, while solar panels are still responsible for carbon production, they produce an average of 77.56% less carbon per kWh than electric from the grid. This actually works out to offset some 0.9 tonnes of carbon production per year, or almost the same carbon emitted in a transatlantic flight.
Solar panels have a lot of pros and cons, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons. If you’re unsure if your home is suitable for solar, you can use our free solar panel calculator, or apply for an EPC inspection to get an energy rating for your home. Or, if you’re ready to take the plunge and invest in solar, you can use our free comparison tool to find and compare the best installers in your area so you can save on your installation.