Solar energy in the UK: How does solar power work and what are its advantages?

Learn more about solar energy, its advantages and disadvantages, and why it's so important for the future of Earth

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Harnessing energy from the sun may seem like the most obvious, and plentiful, renewable energy source we have, but doing so is far from simple.

It requires solar panels to capture this energy and transform it into a voltage, and getting the most out of solar technology has proved difficult. Namely because the efficiency of solar panels is hampered by what's known as the Goldilocks problem: photons need to have just the right amount of energy to be converted into free electrons, which contribute to the voltage. Too little energy, and the photons pass through the solar panel. Too much, and the excess energy disappears as heat.

The latter is due to the creation of hot, or high-energy, electrons. Before these electrons can be extracted from the solar cells they first give off excess energy by causing vibrations in the crystalline material of the solar panel. This, specifically, limits how efficient solar cells are. 

Interested to know more about solar energy? Read on.

Solar energy: What is it?

Life on Earth could not survive without the sun. It provides light and heat, the seasons and the day and night cycle necessary for life to have evolved. Today, we're exploiting the energy from the sun to power our lives and experts say one day, this source of energy may be all we need. But, behind the headlines what exactly is solar power and how do we harness it? There are two main types of solar energy: photovoltaics and concentrated solar power (CSP), also known as concentrated solar thermal.

There are two main types of solar energy: photovoltaics and concentrated solar power (CSP), also known as concentrated solar thermal.

Solar energy accounts for around 1% of global electricity generation, but it is predicted to play a much greater role in the future. It is a renewable energy source, which produces no greenhouse gases or toxic waste, and it relies on light from the sun, which reaches all corners of Earth. It generates electricity using photovoltaic solar cells, typically fitted into solar panels, which convert sunlight into energy on an atomic level.

Solar energy: How do solar panels work?

Solar cells make use of a property called the photovoltaic effect, which describes the process of a photon, or a particle of light with the right wavelength, hitting the cell and causing an electron to flow. This effect was first noticed in 1839 by Henri Becquerel, a French physicist and Nobel laureate.

Most photovoltaic cells are made of a thin film of semiconductors, which creates an electric field. In the most basic terms, when an electron is excited by the light striking the cell, it will flow from one side of the semiconductor to the other, creating a current.

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Solar energy advantages and disadvantages

One of the benefits of using solar cells is their size does not matter when it comes to efficiency. For example, a 10 square metre array of PV cells is just as efficient as a 10 square kilometre array – which is why the development of off-grid solar cells for people’s homes and businesses is taking off. This is unlike any other renewable energy. By comparison, if you built a wind turbine in your back garden it would be ten times smaller than one in a wind farm and nowhere near as efficient.

This is also why companies such as Google are developing solar panels, and why Ikea and Tesla are devising and selling home batteries that store this power for off-the-grid homes.

However, in order for solar power to become widely adopted, we will need to find a way to store the energy generated by the sun more efficiently.

report published in 2015 by physicists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found solar power has the potential to meet the world’s electricity needs.

“Silicon based photovoltaics have the demonstrated capacity, the reliability, and the available resources [to power the world], and also to provide electric power for a large fraction of ground and sea transport,” Robert Jaffe, MIT physicist and co-author of the report, told Alphr.   

But we;re not there yet. “The one missing ingredient at present is large-scale, robust, and cheap electrical energy storage,” Jaffe added. “And there are no obvious candidates at present.”

Solar energy: Solar power in the UK

The UK may not seem like a prime candidate for solar energy, but that hasn't stopped a £1billion government initiative being launched that will see low-income homes across England and Wales getting free solar panels.

Working with experts at Solarplicity, 800,000 homes will get the solar panels within the next five years and the renewable energy company will work with local authorities and social housing providers to install the panels directly to their homes.

Solarplicity claims the plans will save some of the countries' poorest people around £240 per year on energy bills, compared to the prices charged by the UK's energy providers. The residents will also be educated on how to save energy from using different light bulbs to installing smart meters.  

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The first 100,000 homes will be fitted by the end of 2018 and the scheme has been supported by £192million from Dutch company Maas Capital who confirmed the plans at the weekend. 

At the start of August, Ikea began selling solar panels and batteries in the UK - a move that it claimed could slash energy bills by up to £560 a year. The retailer teamed up with Solarcentury to offer home solar systems for “as little as £3,000”. It also launched an online calculator that helps you work out how much you could shave off your energy bills by simply tapping in your postcode. 

More recently, Google brought its Project Sunroof to the UK in a partnership with energy supplier E.ON. The online tool uses Google Earth, Google Maps and machine learning to assess how suitable your home is for solar energy. The tool is not available in all regions of the UK just yet, but is expected to roll out more widely in the coming months. 

Solar energy: Solar power across the globe

Countries like China are leading the way when it comes to large-scale solar development. The Chinese National Energy Administration (NEA) released statistics on solar energy production earlier this year, revealing production doubled in 2016 and reached a gargantuan 77.42 gigawatts by the end of the year. China Merchants New Energy Group (CMNE), one of the country’s largest clean energy operates, also built a panda-shaped solar plant last month as part of an effort to interest kids in renewable energy.

Elsewhere, Elon Musk's Solar Roof is a Tesla-manufactured solar-powered roof comprised of glass tiles embedded with photovoltaic cells. Musk unveiled the Solar Roof in late 2016 and began manufacturing the tiles in January. 

The problem with using photovoltaics is they can only generate electricity when the sun is shining, so would not be able to power anything at night. There is currently no efficient way to store electricity on a large scale, making it the most significant challenge for renewable energy companies.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has promised to build a 100MW lithium ion battery storage farm in Australia, which would be the biggest of its kind if completed. Musk said the system would be installed and working within 100 days of signing a contract.

Beyond solar panels 

Aside from photovoltaics, there is another method of solar power generation that is often overlooked but can already be stored in some way. CSP plants use mirrors to concentrate the light from the sun. This generates heat, which warms a certain type of oil. The oil heats water which drives steam turbine engines, creating electricity. This thermal energy can be stored and used to provide electricity whenever it is needed. However, storing energy as heat is inefficient.

Images: Pixabay/Wikimedia Commons