The different types of solar energy - renewable heating solutions explained

Solar energy is growing exponentially in the domestic energy sector. Even more so now, with energy prices soaring, renewable solutions are becoming more popular for UK households.

One of the most popular renewable energy sources is solar power, which is energy collected from the sun.

Two types of solar energy are solar PV and solar thermal. At first glance, they both seem similar. Yet, this really isn’t the case.

Here, we take a look at how each work, and what their advantages and disadvantages are.

Solar thermal

The simpler of the two, solar thermal technology is primarily used for water heating. They are also known as solar thermal panels, or collectors, as they collect energy to store.

Panels (or collectors) are installed onto the property’s roof. Sunlight is then collected from these panels, which then heats up liquid in tubes. This heated liquid is then transported to a well-insulated cylinder, ready for use.

Advantages of solar thermal

  • It’s great for if you’re limited on space – Compared to solar PVs, solar thermal installations are great for if you don’t have a lot of space for your roof.
  • Choosing solar thermal will save money on your energy bills – Choosing this renewable heating option will shave money off your energy costs as, once installed, they are economical to run.
  • Simple technology – Compared to solar PV, solar thermal panels are a much simpler technology, making it easier to maintain.
  • If you’re wanting to be more environmentally friendly, then choosing solar thermal panels are a great start – There’s no doubt about it, solar thermal is a sustainable and economical choice for water heating for your home.
  • Long lifespan – Solar thermal panels can last up to 30 years if installed correctly and looked after well.

Disadvantages of solar thermal

  • The winter months are tough – Using solar thermal during the colder months can be difficult as there isn’t as much sunlight compared to the summer.
  • Simple technology comes with its downside – Compared to solar PV, solar thermal is a lot less versatile. This means that the weather, or the amount of water you want to heat for example, depends on how effective solar thermal It also doesn’t work at night so no heat can be stored for the next day.
  • It’s not great for space heating – If a space heater is installed alongside your panels, then space heating can be an option. However, unless they’re installed right next to the room you want to heat, it’s difficult to heat rooms that are situated away from the heater. As mentioned previously, using solar thermal for space heating in the winter might not be the most reliable option due to a lack of sunlight.
  • It can be expensive – Solar thermal installation can start from £8,000*. Contributing factors to the cost include the size of the property, whether a cylinder is needed, and the panels’ specifications.

Solar PV panels

Solar photovoltaic panels, PV panels for short, is a newer form of renewable technology. It’s also more advanced and versatile, making it a popular choice for your home’s renewable energy solution.

There are three types of PV panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film.

Each absorbs energy, which is then transformed into electricity using silicon-based technology. Each PV panel is made up of layers of semi-conducting silicon material. When sunlight is exposed to this material, electricity is created.

Whilst this material does not need direct sunlight to work, the stronger the sunlight, the more electricity that will be produced.

An inverter will need to be installed alongside PV panels in order to convert this generated direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC).

Once converted, your household can then use AC throughout the home. It can also be stored in a battery or water immersion tank, or can be exported to the grid.

Advantages of PV panels

  • Cloudy days are not an issue – Solar PV collects energy regardless of if the sun is brightly shining. This means that, even during poor weather, PV panels still collect and generate energy.
  • Once installed, solar PV is economical to run – After the initial cost, using PV energy is much cheaper to use than a fossil fuel-based energy appliance. According to Money Saving Expert, you can save up to £405** a year on your bills.
  • Decrease your carbon footprint with solar PV – An obvious yet important advantage, using solar PV will dramatically decrease your CO2 emissions, making it a responsible and sustainable
  • Solar PV can keep up with high energy demands – unlike solar thermal, PV panels can cover high energy demands such as using the tumble dryer, fridge or washing machine etc.

Disadvantages of PV panels

  • The initial cost can be hefty – Investing in solar PV panels can be a real investment. Depending on the property size, energy demand and specification of the panels, a typical PV panel system can set you back £7,000.
  • They take up a lot of space – compared to solar thermal panels, solar PV panels take up much more space.
  • Your property might not be suitable for solar PV – Some properties don’t benefit from solar PV energy. For example, if your property is located in a shaded area, this could affect the performance of the system as a whole. If there is little or no roof space, then the panels would not be able to be installed. Also, if your roof is weakened or broken, installing panels would not be a great idea.

There are many advantages and disadvantages for both solar thermal and solar PV.

Firstly, you have to think about what you want the system for: if you’re looking for a renewable solution specifically for water heating, then solar thermal may be the way to go.

However, if you’re wanting a renewable solution that meets high energy demands all year round, then solar PV could be the best option.

Whatever your needs, our expert team at Swale Heating can help you make the right decision for your budget and property size.

Contact us today via our website, or call us on 0800 731 3344 to have a chat with our Sales team.


Information sources:

*Swale Heating

**Money Saving Expert