How do solar PV panels work?

A solar PV system captures the sun’s energy and uses it to generate electricity. The system will continue to work even in cloudy conditions. Not only could you save money by generating your own electricity, you could also earn money from the Government's Feed-In Tariff.

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Technical information made simple

 

Solar PV panels are made up of solar cells. Each cell is made from one or two layers of semi-conducting material, typically silicon, covered by non-reflective glass. Here’s how a typical system works:

 

  1. The light shines on the cell and this creates an electric field across the layers, causing electricity to flow.
  2. The electricity flows through a cable and is collected at a central point generally under the panels and located in your roof space.
  3. The electricity produced is Direct Current (DC) and needs to be converted to Alternate Current (AC) by an inverter which is fitted as part of the system. This is AC current is then used in your home to power your lights and appliances.
  4. If you don’t use all the electricity that you have generated, it will be fed into the National Grid automatically. It is estimated that you will export 50-75% of the electricity you generate. If the system can’t provide you with enough electricity, i.e. at night, the Grid will automatically supply you as it does now, for which you will be charged.

 

The stronger the sunshine, the more electricity you can produce, but PV cells don’t need direct sunlight to work – you can still generate some electricity on a cloudy day.

The strength of a PV cell is measured in kilowatt peak (kWp). That’s the amount of energy the cell generates in full sunlight. This rating will determine the amount of electricity that you can produce. Typical domestic units are 3 or 4 kWp.

 

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Installation

In order to qualify for the Feed-In Tariff, the panels must be fitted by a MCS accredited installer. Find out more about the installation of your PV panels here.

 

FAQs

What guarantees do solar PV panels come with?
It does vary from manufacturer to manufacturer but typically Solar PV panels will come with an output guarantee in the region of 20 and 25 years. The Inverter will have a shorter life, and your should budget to have this replaced once during the life of your system (25 years or more) and therefore has a shorter guarantee, typically around 5 years. The labour guarantee will depend on your installer and your should ask or study the fine print in your quote; 5 years is fairly typical.
How long does a solar PV panel installation take?
A solar PV installation normally takes 2-3 days.
Can I heat water with solar PV panels?
Whilst PV panels do not directly heat water (this is what solar thermal panels do) they do produce electricity that can be used to do anything that you want to - even export it back to the grid for an extra payment. This electricity can be used to heat water if you have an immersion water heater.
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