How Efficient Are Solar Panels in the UK?
Which Factors Determine Solar Panel Efficiency?
Solar panels are usually able to process 15% to 22% of solar energy into usable energy, depending on factors like placement, orientation, weather conditions, and similar. The amount of sunlight that solar panel systems are able to convert into actual electricity is called performance, and the outcome determines the solar panel efficiency.
- Type of panel material such as monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film
- Inclination, orientation and wiring of the panels
- Temperatures and sunshine hours throughout the year
- Inverter efficicency that converts solar power to direct current
To determine solar panel efficiency, panels are tested at Standard Test Conditions (STC). STC specifies a temperature of 25°C and an irradiance of 1,000 W/m2. This is the equivalent of a sunny day with the incident light hitting a sun-facing 37°-tilted surface. Under these test conditions, a solar panel efficiency of 15% with a 1 m2 surface area would produce 150 Watts.
Apart from the standard test conditions, solar panels are extensively tested for performance in extreme conditions.
What Types of Solar Panels Are Most Efficient?
There are numerous types of solar panels. The most common types of solar panels are:
Monocrystalline solar panels
Polycrystalline solar panels
Thin-film solar panels
It is important to understand that the efficiency of an individual solar cell does not equate to the efficiency of solar panels (modules) as a system. While solar panel efficiency is generally around 15-20%, solar cell efficiency can reach 42% in some cases.
However, unless otherwise stated, the performance of solar cells is measured under laboratory conditions. Therefore, although 42% is an impressive performance, laboratory conditions are different than real life and this is not applicable to residential users.
Monocrystalline Solar Panels
Monocrystalline solar panels, also called single-crystalline cells are manufactured from the purest silicon. A crystal of this type of silicon is grown in a complex process to produce a long rod. The rod is then cut into wafers that will make the solar cells. Monocrystalline solar panels are known to deliver the highest efficiency in standard test conditions when compared to the other 2 types of solar cells. The current delivered monocrystalline solar panel efficiency stands at 22-27%. You can recognise a monocrystalline panel by the rounded edge and the dark colour.
Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Solar panels made of polycrystalline solar panels, also called multi crystalline cells are slightly less efficient than those made up of monocrystalline solar cells. This is due to the nature of production. The silicon is not grown as a single cell but as a block of crystals. These blocks are then cut into wafers to produce individual solar cells. The current delivered polycrystalline solar panel efficiency stands at 15-22%. You can recognise a polycrystalline solar panel by the square cut and blue speckled colour.
Thin Film Solar Panels
Thin film solar panels are made by covering a substrate of glass, plastic or metal with one or more thin-layers of photovoltaic material. Thin film solar panels are usually flexible and low in weight. It is known that thin film solar panels degrade somewhat faster than mono and polycrystalline solar panels. Production of this kind of panels is less complex, thus their output is 5% less than monocrystalline solar panel efficiency. Normally, thin film cells deliver between 15-22% solar panel efficiency.
Thin film solar panel technology is closing the efficiency gap with more expensive types of solar panels, therefore thin film solar panels are installed on large scale projects and in record breaking solar power plants.
The Efficiency of Solar Panels Under Extreme Conditions
No single customer wants to end up with solar panels that aren't technically sound. There are major advantages of solar energy, but it's important to have the right type of solar panel installed in your home. In order to guarantee the quality of a solar panel, it is extensively tested under extreme conditions.
A thick layer of snow can be too heavy for a solar panel. Solar cells stop working when more than 5 cm of snow accumulates on a solar panel and decreases solar panel efficiency by 100%. However, the tilt of solar panels allows the snow to simply glide off, and if not, then it can be manually removed.
Under normal snowy weather, solar panels can still thrive and generate electricity. There's also a possibility of the snow on the ground reflecting sunlight onto the panels.
For more information about how solar panels are still effective in the winter, check out our video below.
Wind is one of the most predicted causes of solar cell damage. Solar panel manufacturers conduct extensive wind tunnel testing to decrease potential damage. According to Research Gate, a slight decrease in solar panel efficiency is observed with the increase in wind velocity.
Having said that, the wind has some positive effects as well. The effect of wind does cool the panels and when the panels are cooled by 1 degree, the efficiency increases by 0.05%.
Hail testing consists of firing artificial hail at a speed of 20 to 30 m/s. Solar cells remain undamaged at these speeds. Based on a report from NREL, the analysis of 50,000 solar energy systems installed between 2009 and 2013 show that only 0.1% of all systems have either been underperforming or have been damaged during hail. Solar panels are designed to withstand such extreme weather conditions.
Ice builds upon the surface of solar cells when no silicon coating is applied. The build-up of ice can potentially decrease solar panel efficiency by 25 to 100%.
For chemical residue to dissolve at least 20 mm of rainfall has to land on the surface of the solar cells. Research has shown a reduction of 0.2% in solar panel efficiency when they are covered in a layer of chemical build-up.
A solar cell structure can be delaminated by UV-induced degradation. Another consequence can be the discoloration of individual solar cells. Due to the exposure to initial sunlight, the panel surface can form a layer of boron oxide that reduces efficiency by 1 - 3% in the first 1,000 hours.
Damp heat testing
Damp heat testing is carried out to test the durability of solar panels in highly humid conditions. Humidity can lead to corrosion and to module connection failure and an overall decrease of solar panel efficiency.
Insulation resistance is determined by material strength. In weak materials, current leakage can occur on the edges of the solar panel.
Thermal cycling can cause solar panel components to fail. These components include solar cells, interconnections, solder bonds and module connections.
Upon installation, it is important to consider all the factors that could influence solar panel efficiency. Moreover, it is essential to maximise output from the get go.
Why Perform Extensive Testing of Solar Panel Efficiency Under Extreme Conditions?
Solar panel efficiency testing is carried out in order to prevent low quality solar panels from being sold in the market. The manufacturer has to prove that the solar cells have long term durability and long term efficiency. Solar panels available in the UK market are certified by first passing extensive testing.
Usually, solar cells are tested in state of the art, fully automated solar panel testing facilities. This high standard in testing enables categorisation of solar panel efficiency in groups with similar power outputs.
4 Key Attributes When Choosing Solar Panels
The cost for your solar panels installation per square metre.
Solar panel efficiency of the entire solar panel module.
Lifespan of individual solar cells.
- The Aesthetics and style of your solar panel.
You may also want to factor in the storage of electricity produced by your solar panels during the day. UK homes with solar panels generate power during the day and by installing a solar battery storage system, you can use this electricity during the evenings thereby reducing your dependency on the grid.
To help you find the best solar panels for your specific home, you can follow our 6-step video guide:
The Future of Solar Panel Efficiency
There is massive competitiveness in the solar power market. Emerging giants like China and India are the biggest polluters and also global leaders in solar power station development. This sheer competitiveness will lead to lower prices for solar panels and more efficient storage solutions.
All these developments will ultimately seep through into the residential solar panel market. The change will lead to less expensive and more efficient solar power modules that can easily be installed for your homes.
Solar panel affordability and efficiency have improved dramatically over the past decades. The UK government, through various solar panel grants, has been incentivising households to opt for renewables to power their homes. On the other hand, researchers are continuously looking at improving the efficiency rate of solar photovoltaics to make the most out of solar power.
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