We are often told “but solar panels don’t work very well here – it’s not sunny enough”, so here’s a list of the advantages of solar for Birmingham (and anywhere else in the UK).
Solar photovoltaic (pv) panels allow the direct conversion of the most freely available resource, daylight, into a valuable energy form, electricity, that can be used to run lights, computers, appliances.
The panels are made primarily of silicon, which is one of the earth’s most abundant elements.
The energy needed to make the panels is recovered within 2-3 years.
Solar can help to decarbonise the country’s electricity supply, as it doesn’t emit any CO2 in operation. It helps to protect the atmosphere and climate, having very low costs to the environment and to the future, compared to other energy sources.
Solar energy has already arrived at the Earth’s surface and doesn’t add to heat pollution.
Availability and Use
Sunlight is available everywhere. It doesn’t have to be imported, as the UK receives much more per year than the energy we use (1,000 kwh per square metre on a south facing roof). Having solar electricity where we need it outweighs the fact that other countries have more solar energy.
PV panels are not dependant on warmth; in fact they work better at lower temperatures, so are suited to Britain’s climate.
Supply from pv is reliable in the sense of not subject to global markets or competition for fuel, nor affected by disasters, wars etc elsewhere.
Sunlight is endless and the amount received hardly varies significantly from year to year (about 5%), even though it varies from day to day. We can reliably calculate the output of a pv panel in 10 or 20 years time.
Although output varies at one location if pv panels are connected to the grid, then we can rely on many locations and sources of renewable electricity.
The new version of pv uses amorphous pv, which traps a greater amount of light in cloudy conditions, so pv will become even more suited to our climate in future.
In Britain, we have long days in summer, so solar electric output for up to 16 hours a day. This complements wind energy, which is mainly available in winter. Britain is Europe’s best location for wind power and solar generation will complement it in summer months.
Solar can supply electricity on workplaces factories, offices and schools in the day-time when they are occupied and require power.
Domestic installations should produce surplus electricity during the daytime, when residents are out, to export to workplaces and transport systems.
For much of the year, pv will still be operating during the early evening peak demand. Moving clocks forward one hour (daylight saving) would extend this period.
Although they shut down after dark, we spend 8 hours asleep so demand for electricity is lowest when pv is not operating.
PV panels can go on roofs of existing buildings, so have no extra space requirement, i.e. they don’t need land.
At least one in four roofs is suitable for pv, i.e. several million sites in UK.
An inverter turns the direct current into alternating current that can displace electricity within a building, or go into the local electricity grid to be share with others.
If solar pv is connected to the grid, it doesn’t need storage of electricity within the building by batteries etc
Put onto buildings, it supplies electricity where it is needed, so has very small loses in transmission.
PV doesn’t have to connect to the grid, so it can also supply at off-grid rural properties.
PV can be installed quickly, compared to wind farms, power stations, or tidal barrages. The amount installed in Britain is rising rapidly.
It can be added to land or buildings without affecting other uses, and to space that has no other value.
PV is modular and output is proportional to its area, so one can have any number of panels, making both large and small systems viable.
Domestic panels don’t require planning permission.
Solar pv is silent and emits no fumes.
Thin film pv can be incorporated into glass windows, conservatories etc.
Costs and benefits
Because solar panels are sold in millions all around the world, they are subject to mass production and economies of scale and tend to come down in price over time – this applies to both the production of the panels and the cost of installation.
PV can be used as an element in construction panels, tiles, replacing other building materials.
PV panels are compatible with home ownership and can be paid for via a mortgage.
PV panels have no moving parts and so are reliable and require almost no maintenance. They are self cleaning in the rain in most locations.
Panels remain on the roof and are passed to future owners. They are a long-term investment that increases the value of the property in a real and measurable way. The Energy performance certificate on the building links energy performance to saleability.
The product is electricity which can be sold via the grid. Electricity is likely to remain in strong demand and wanted by the energy utilities.
The sun’s energy is free and will not increase in price. This is a protection against cost inflation for running cost of buildings, enterprises etc. It will become more valuable as fossil fuel prices rise.
Free solar electricity permanently reduces fuel bills when it is connected to the domestic circuit. It can help combat fuel poverty for residents on low incomes.
Solar builds the local economy because value creation remains locally owned. The income circulates at local level, creating more economic activity and jobs instead of being exported. It makes for more sustainable business, households and public services. It promotes social equality and stability.
The Feed in Tariff is a scheme to pay those who generate renewable electricity (since 2010). It is not government money, so not subject to spending cuts. It is guaranteed for 25 years and inflation linked.
The money is taken from all electricity customers. Big users of electricity, industrial and commercial contribute the most. The additional cost to individual domestic customers is currently under a penny (2011).
The FIT represents the difference between dirty carbon based fuels and a clean, renewable source. It adjusts the price to account for all environmental costs and benefits.
FIT tariff is temporary, and aimed to get the new industry started by encouraging early adopters. The incentive ‘degresses’ by 8.5% every year. It is not a long term subsidy to solar as such, but a way to kick start a new industry. Germany is ten years ahead of the and there the FIT has succeeded in bringing down the cost and making it a widespread and substantial contributor to energy supply. UK is following the same track.
Social landlords, housing associations and councils are leading on installing pv, so it is their tenants who benefit from free electricity. Some of the poorest people will benefit most. The social landlords receive the feed in tariff and this helps them to maintain homes and keep down rents they have to charge.
Advantages of Solar Heating in the UK
A country like Britain needs heat for buildings in winter. 60% of domestic energy use is for winter heating. Our need for heat means solar heating is actually more important in displacing fuels than is the case in warmer countries. It is temperature difference that makes solar heat worth collecting.
Windows are solar collectors, which have already been installed. At lower angles, the sun penetrates through windows, whereas in warmer regions the sun would be higher and not able to enter.
Insulation of a building extends the period of the year when the suns heat is enough and when no fuel needs to be bought in.
If heat is stored in the thermal mass of the building this doesn’t cost anything.
The ground stores solar heat from summer to winter, as do seas, lakes and rivers. It is possible to extract this heat with an electric heat pump and use it for heating when it is needed.
Solar thermal panels give free hot water for most months of the year and a useful contribution even in winter. Sunlight is absorbed even when the air temperature is low. This is a very established, safe and reliable technology that uses water as the heat store. They can be integrated with the normal boiler and tank. The pump can also be solar powered, using photovoltaic panel (solar twin).
Wood, straw and other plant derived biomass are cheap natural stores of solar energy. We can burn them to recover the heat of past summers.