We’ve heard the ambitions from government leaders, with plans for the UK to hit net-zero emissions by 2050 - but how do we achieve this? Policy reforms and increased incentives for homeowners are a powerful start, but understanding the practical solutions is even more crucial.
Home heating accounts for around 14 per cent of all carbon emissions in the UK. This is mainly down to boilers being run on fossil fuels, such as natural gas or oil. Transforming the way we heat our homes is widely accepted as a key component to help meet net zero goals, and ultimately reduce the impact of climate change.
So, how do we produce sustainable home heating? And is it a viable option for UK homeowners? The answer to these queries could lie in solar energy and adopting it into our heating systems.
The role of solar energy in home heating
Central heating systems are essentially the beating heart of any home - they heat our water and they warm our radiators whenever we need it. Gas boilers have been commonplace in our homes since the 1970s, and it’s estimated that up to 23 million homes are currently using gas boilers in 2023.
This demand for gas-powered heating has contributed to the high levels of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. There are, however, sustainable heating options available that can rapidly reduce the impact that fossil-fuelled boilers have - one of these is solar energy.
Solar energy is harnessed through solar panels which use photovoltaic, or PV, cells to capture the sun's rays and convert them into usable electricity for use around the home.
These systems have become increasingly popular for homeowners. Not only do they eliminate the need to access energy from the grid (of which 30-50 per cent is still sourced from fossil fuels), but they also reduce the need to pay high supplier costs for electricity.
Creating solar energy is the first step in using solar power for home heating. Below are the main ways solar energy can support a home heating system.
Solar electric boiler
Electric-powered boilers are incredibly efficient, converting almost 100 per cent of the energy they consume into usable heat. In addition, if they are paired with a renewable energy source, they are considered emissions-free, because no harmful gases are emitted as they run.
Powering an electric boiler via solar panels can not only eliminate emissions but also reduce energy consumption in the long term. This will save significant amounts of money on bills and can offset any upfront central heating installation costs associated with the switch.
Solar thermal (water heating)
For those homes with high demands for heating and hot water, solar power can be used as an effective alternative to fossil-fuelled heating.
Solar thermal systems work in a similar way to solar panels, but the technology works slightly differently. Rather than capturing the sun's rays for electricity, they aim to capture the heat instead. This heat can then be used directly in conjunction with hot water storage tanks to provide ample amounts of hot water on demand.
For any homeowner with solar panels, solar batteries are well worth considering. These batteries can store solar energy for later use and are found in various size capacities.
Solar batteries are the perfect solution for when there is less sunlight to generate electricity directly. They can ensure a heating system is powered by renewable energy no matter what the weather conditions are outside.
It's important to note that solar battery costs can be significant and will vary depending on the size needed. However, this can be a worthwhile investment to avoid relying on the national grid during bad weather seasons.
Whilst there are several options available for homeowners to adapt the way they use energy and take advantage of the many benefits of solar power, there are of course hurdles. Solar power isn’t something that everyone can easily afford or access, but there are some ways to overcome these issues.
Overcoming solar challenges
Powering central heating systems on solar energy can be a challenge, primarily because these solutions are based on sunlight - which, by its nature, isn’t always available. In addition, installing solar energy systems can be costly. However, with the right strategies and technologies, these challenges can be effectively addressed, making solar central heating a viable and sustainable option.
Here are just some of the challenges, and ways they may be overcome.
- Intermittency of Sunlight:
Solar energy is inherently reliant on sunlight, which is not available 24/7. This intermittency poses challenges to maintaining a consistent heat supply for central heating, especially during nighttime or cloudy days.
There are some options to overcome this, however, including:
- Heat Storage Systems: Effective heat storage and insulation are essential for ensuring a continuous heat supply. Solar thermal systems often incorporate well-insulated water tanks that store excess heat generated during sunny periods. This stored heat can be released when sunlight is scarce, maintaining a consistent supply.
- Hybrid Systems: Hybrid systems integrate solar thermal with other renewable sources, like biomass or geothermal, to offer year-round heating.
- Solar Batteries: As discussed above, these can offer a crucial backup source of renewable power.
- Initial Setup Costs:
The initial cost of installing a solar central heating system can be a significant barrier for many homeowners and businesses. The cost typically includes, for example, the purchase of solar panels and professional installation. Other systems which include boilers may also need plumbing or modifications to the home.
There are some options to help with this:
- Government Funding: The UK government has set up the Energy Company Obligation Scheme (ECO4). Through this scheme, homeowners can access energy efficiency improvements for their homes. For those eligible, it is possible to get support to install solar panels, however, this can only be accessed through select energy suppliers.
- Energy Export Schemes: Homeowners can be paid for any excess renewable energy they produce through solar panels which they export back to the national grid. The current scheme which offers these payments is the ‘Smart Export Guarantee’. Although this won’t support upfront costs, it can help recoup the initial investment, through repayments.
- Bank Promotions: Some banks or building societies have been offering incentives on mortgages, which can offer a cash sum to homeowners who install solar panels.
- Independent Advisors: There are groups and organisations online that also offer support to access grants or obtain free installation quotes through their services.
- Maintenance and System Efficiency:
Solar heating systems, like any technology, require regular maintenance to ensure their efficiency and longevity. Dust, dirt, and other environmental factors can impact the performance of solar panels.
Proper maintenance and efficiency can be addressed as follows:
- Regular Inspections: Scheduled inspections and maintenance by professionals can identify and rectify any issues before they become significant problems.
- Efficient Design: Proper system design, including the orientation and angle of solar panels, can maximise efficiency.
- Technology Advancements: Ongoing advancements in solar technology contribute to improved system efficiency.
By addressing these challenges with innovative technology, financial support, and proper system design, the adoption of solar central heating can become a more accessible and viable choice.
As the world continues to transition to more sustainable energy solutions, the challenges of solar central heating are progressively being overcome, making it an increasingly attractive option for achieving sustainable central heating.
Does solar energy have a role to play?
As we search for a sustainable solution to our central heating needs, solar energy stands out as a promising solution. The benefits are undeniably compelling. First and foremost, it addresses one of the most pressing challenges of our time: reducing our carbon footprint.
Solar heating systems help to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions by replacing conventional heating methods reliant on fossil fuels. This transition is pivotal in the fight against climate change, ensuring that we leave a healthier and more sustainable planet for future generations.
One of the most compelling advantages of solar central heating is the potential for substantial cost savings in the long run. While the initial setup costs can be a significant investment, the reduced energy bills and the potential for earning money by selling excess energy back to the grid are strong financial incentives.
Whilst there are positives, it’s also important to recognise the challenges that come with trying to use a solar heating solution. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the nature of sunlight. As the sun is not always shining the inability to control when it generates energy presents a hurdle for maintaining a consistent heat supply.
Another critical challenge is the initial setup costs associated with solar heating systems. While long-term savings are substantial, the upfront investment can be a barrier for many.
Fortunately, additional technologies such as solar batteries to store backup energy, and funding schemes to help cut costs, are offering the kind of support needed to overcome these issues and make solar power more accessible.
The path to solar central heating becoming a mainstream and effective solution is one that requires ongoing innovation, financial support, and a collective commitment to sustainability.
By carefully balancing the benefits and challenges, we can gradually transition to a greener and more resilient heating future.