You may be aware that there are two types of solar panels: solar PV (photovoltaic
With the current state of energy prices, it makes more sense now than ever to invest in solar panels.
The idea of living off the grid is getting a lot of attention at the moment. As ever, part of the attraction is the idea of living more independently and sustainably. Nowadays, though, there are two new reasons why people want to live off-grid:
Nowadays, people want to live off the grid for practical and financial reasons as well.
When it comes to finding a way to generate off-grid electricity, the first thing people think about is usually solar panels. Often, this is just because that’s what they’re most familiar with. They’re quite right too, though. Solar panels, as well as being well known, are the most affordable and effective way of independently producing electricity.
What most people want is to know whether they can build a solar panel system on their house that will allow them to live completely off the grid, straight away.
When attempting to go off-grid, most people will find the following applies:
One basic thing to know is that the vast majority of houses that have solar panels fitted still use grid electricity. What happens is that the household uses their solar electricity as much as possible, and then they supplement this with grid electricity when they have to.
Here’s a breakdown of how much electricity typical solar panel systems produce and what proportion of a household’s total usage will be. We’ve also included figures on what the financial savings will be as well.
Figures are based on the following:
UK Average Annual Electricity Consumption
Typical Solar Panel System for This Household
Solar System Electricity Output
Household Use of Solar Electricity in Percentage
Annual Financial Savings
2 bedroom flat/house
2 – 3 bedroom house
3.5kW (this is the average size for the UK)
5 bedroom house
As you can see, solar panel systems don’t normally allow you to live completely off the grid. This might seem like a shame at first, but if you read on you’ll find out that these figures are quite impressive. True off-grid living is quite difficult to achieve and in many situations it’s unfeasible.
One thing to note is that it may be possible to substantially improve the figures for the usage of solar panel electricity. Two pieces of technology that can help are:
With solar batteries and solar diverters, you can optimise your solar panel system by using as much of your electricity in your house as possible.
Living completely off the grid in the UK with solar panels alone is technically possible. The big problem that people face, however, is that solar panels produce electricity at inconvenient times.
Storing electricity that’s produced by solar panels during the daytime for use in the evening is a challenge that can be overcome. Most households encounter this problem to at least some degree and can find a solution. Solar batteries, for example, can be used to store daytime electricity for use in the evenings.
However, the increased demand for energy during the winter is a problem for solar panels that’s difficult to overcome.
The problem is that this excess summer electricity would all be wasted and the investment needed to build such a large solar panel system would be substantial. In addition to this, it would also be an environmentally unfriendly thing to do. The solar panels you fit would largely be disused over their lifetime. It would be more environmentally friendly to use grid energy.
In the UK, energy demands are much higher for all households during the winter months. This is mainly because of the need for heating. However, energy use also increases for other reasons. More lighting is also needed, and people tend to stay inside more and use electrical household appliances.
Remember, not only is energy use higher, but solar energy production is also lower in the winter.
To cope with this demand for solar panels, you would need to build a huge solar array that would be able to cope with a much larger demand at a time when it works much less efficiently.
The upshot of all this is that it’s not feasible to live off the grid with solar power alone. Solar panels are great, but you need an alternative source of energy for the winter.
You don’t need to write off the idea of living off the grid. Off-grid living is possible, but it will take some effort to overcome the problem of the cold UK winter months.
Here are some figures on energy production for three popular alternative domestic sources of off-grid energy:
Things to Know
Domestic wind turbines typically have an annual output of 2 – 6kWh
They’re great, but you’re dependent on their being enough wind at the right times
Around 15 megajoules per kg for hardwood
You’ll need about 6m3 of hardwood for one wood burner per year. That’s about 2.4 tonnes.
can be used to power boilers ranging from 15 – 56kW in output
To work out how much fuel you’ll need, you can divide the output of your biomass boiler by four. A 30kW boiler will need 7.5 tonnes of fuel per year for £600 – £1120 in wood chips.
It’s worth pointing out that, in most cases, full off-grid living will mean moving to a suitable location. This lifestyle lends itself to rural locations where the storage of fuel and power-generating equipment is possible.
If you’re still committed to the off-grid approach, check out this video here.
For most people, the best thing is to keep it simple and settle for partial off-grid living with a normal solar panel system. Don’t forget that, even with a basic system, you’ll be over 50% off the grid in your electricity use. The electricity your solar panels produce will be completely free, and you’ll be able to use it for whatever you want without worrying too much about the cost.
One great step that solar panel owners can take is to make as much effort as possible to maximise their daytime electricity use.
If you’re able to use the electricity your solar panels produce directly from them as they produce it, then you’ll be using your solar energy as efficiently as possible. Your solar electricity will go straight into your domestic appliances, taking the place of expensive grid energy.
If you’re not able to do this, then the next best alternative is to use an additional piece of technology to help you out. As we mentioned earlier, the best things here are batteries and diverters.
When you export electricity to the National Grid, you can be paid for it under the Smart Export Guarantee.
Note that you won’t get the Smart Export Guarantee if you’re living off the grid.
As such, people often assume that it’s fine to allow solar panels to produce excess electricity and then export it to the grid. You get paid for it, so it should all be okay, right?
Well, the problem is that what you get paid for exporting electricity to the grid is much less than what you pay for importing it from the grid. It seems unfair, but energy companies won’t pay you as much for the energy you produce as they’ll charge you for the energy they sell to you.
As annoying as this is, it just means you need to make as much use as possible of the electricity your solar panels produce during the daytime.
Here’s how much they cost
Despite the fact the batteries cost significantly more than diverters, they’re more popular and are usually a better choice. Overall, they work more efficiently and allow for more complete use of excess daytime solar energy. Diverters are effective, but more electricity will be ‘lost’ to the grid with a diverter than it will with a batter. Over time, batteries are a better investment.
For general information about solar panels and planning permission, check out our article here.
Most of the time, for a roof-mounted solar panel system for domestic property in the UK, there’s no need to apply for planning permission. Things do change though when solar panel systems are built on the ground. And for off-grid living, you’ll probably end up needing to site at least some solar panels on the ground.
You’ll need planning permission if your solar panel system is over 9m2 in size and it’s built on the ground
You might well also need planning permission to install another alternative off-grid source of energy like windmills.
If you’re considering building extra solar panels for off-grid living, a key thing to know will be how long they’ll last.
Here’s the answer:
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