What is solar?

Solar takes advantage of a free and powerful energy source – the sun.

In a single hour, the sun transmits more energy to the earth's surface than the world uses in a year.

Solar converts this energy into electricity, making it a simple, clean and cost-effective way to power our lives. It’s dependable, too – because unlike fossil fuels, the sun’s energy is unlimited.

Just imagine what that could do for your wallet, your bottom line and the environment.

Read more about THE solar century

With environmental concerns and sustainability becoming ever-more important, investment and education around renewable energy have increased considerably in recent years.

Understanding solar energy can be tricky, however, the technology is constantly evolving; discoveries and improvements are being made all the time. In fact, solar power is 100 times cheaper now than it was 35 years ago.

To try and answer some of the most frequently asked questions, to bust some of the most common myths, and to try and generate some positive discussion around the topic, we've created this introductory interactive which explores a number of important topics and issues around solar power on the international stage in the 21st century.

Discover more with our Interactive Guide to Solar Power

What are solar panels?

Placed on roofs or on the ground, solar panels capture the sunlight and convert it into electricity.

And you don’t need to live somewhere warm and sunny, because solar needs only light not heat. Even the UK gets 60% of the sunlight (or solar radiation) found at the Equator.

It’s true that the more light the panels receive, the more electricity they can generate. But they still work on cloudy days – just as a solar-powered calculator does.

Their full name is solar photovoltaic panels, or PV. (“Photo” means “light” and “volts” means electricity.) At Solarcentury, we usually just say “solar” for short.

How do solar panels work?

You’ve probably seen solar panels on roofs, or maybe on the ground. The panels are frames made up of solar PV cells (these are layers of monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon – a handy fact for your next quiz):

  1. The sun’s radiation hits these cells and is converted to direct current (DC) energy.
  2. This DC energy travels to an electrical device called an inverter, which converts DC energy into alternating current (AC) energy.
  3. The AC electricity produced is just like the power supplied by your utility company, and can go directly to power things like computers and lights.
  4. Or the power produced can be exported back to the mains national electricity grid and get redistributed around the country.


Why should I choose solar?

There are so many reasons, it’s difficult to summarise…


Unlimited and reliable

At the moment we rely on fossil fuels, and increasingly on imports. But the sun’s energy is unlimited, so it’s a secure source of power for the future.



When electricity providers hike up their prices, the sun keeps shining for free. Solar panels produce energy from daylight, so they still work on overcast days. You can generate your own free power, and stop worrying about soaring bills.



With government tariffs and payback schemes, you can earn money from producing solar power – even if you use it all yourself. It’s low-risk, with predictable year-on year-yields giving you a better rate of return than an ISA!

Learn more about the financial incentives here.



Solar is fuss-free, easy to install and very low-maintenance. The power from the panels is warrantied for 25 years and expected to continue generating for many years beyond its guaranteed life. All you need to get started is a building or some land – and it’s quiet, with little visual impact.



Unlike fossil fuels which create harmful air pollution and global warming, electricity created from the sun is clean. So a typical home with solar could save a tonne of carbon dioxide a year, while an acre of solar could save an amazing 10,000 tonnes.


An investment to be proud of

The UK government has committed to generate 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable sources by 2020 – but by 2010, the UK had only reached 3.2% of its target. By choosing solar, you make an investment you can be proud of and show you’re commitment to clean, renewable energy. What’s more, you’ll be supporting British installers and the UK economy in these tough times.

FREE SchoolScience approved science resources

(for 14-16 year olds)
Meet requirements of the new science curriculum teaching pupils about the impacts and uses of solar photovoltaics (PV) in the UK and on a global level.Interactive lesson plans and tasks teaching pupils about air quality, sustainable energy, and working scientifically.
Lesson 1
How can solar make a difference in Africa?
Lesson 2
Is solar energy part of the solution in the UK?
Lesson 3
Investigating solar panels
Supporting presentations
Activity sheets for students

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