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Solar PV vs Solar Thermal UK: A Comprehensive Comparison

solar pv vs a solar thermal panel

In the world of renewable energy, there is often a debate between the use of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar thermal systems. Both technologies harness the sun's energy, but they do so in different ways and have distinct advantages and drawbacks for UK home and business owners.

Solar PV panels convert sunlight directly into electricity, whereas solar thermal systems capture sunlight and convert it into heat that can be used for domestic hot water and space heating. While solar PV systems currently have an efficiency of around 15-20% in converting sunlight into electricity, solar thermal systems boast a much higher efficiency of 70-90% in converting energy into heat. This difference in efficiency can play a significant role when comparing costs, space requirements, and overall benefits for homeowners.

Another factor when deciding between solar PV and solar thermal is the installation costs and potential savings. Solar PV systems tend to have higher upfront costs, ranging from £5,520 to £6,040 for a 3-4 kW system, while solar thermal systems are slightly more affordable with costs between £3,100 and £4,200 for a system covering 3m² - 4m². Ultimately, the choice between the two technologies will depend on individual needs, property size, and renewable energy goals.

Solar PV and Solar Thermal: Definitions and Core Principles

Solar Photovoltaic (PV)

Solar Photovoltaic (PV) technology involves the conversion of sunlight into electrical energy through the use of semiconductor materials found in PV cells. These cells, often very thin and small, are capable of producing about 1 or 2 watts of power each. PV cells can be combined into larger panels or arrays to generate more power for various applications, such as residential or commercial electricity supply.

Solar Thermal

Solar Thermal technology focuses on the collection and conversion of sunlight into heat. This heat can be used for various purposes, such as heating water, providing supplemental warmth for homes or businesses, or even converting it back into electricity. Solar Thermal systems typically involve the use of panels or collectors on rooftops, which capture sunlight and heat a fluid within tubes. This heated fluid is then stored in a cylinder for later use.

There are key differences in the efficiency and applications of these two technologies. While Solar PV systems focus on electricity generation, Solar Thermal systems are considered more efficient for heating water or supplementing heat for spaces, with up to 70% higher efficiency in collecting heat from the sun's rays compared to Solar PV.

When evaluating Solar PV and Solar Thermal technologies for use in the UK, it is essential to consider the specific requirements and energy needs of the intended application, as each system offers different benefits and considerations.

Comparing Technologies: Advantages and Disadvantages


Solar thermal systems can be up to 70% more efficient in collecting heat from sun rays compared to solar PV systems, making them a more space-efficient solution for heating water. However, solar PV is often more versatile and tends to perform better during weaker sunlight and cloudier weather .


On average, a solar thermal system tends to be slightly more affordable than a solar PV setup. A 3-4m2 solar thermal system may cost around £3,100 - £4,200, whereas a 3-4 kW solar PV system is approximately £5,520 - £6,040.

Ease of Installation

While both solar PV and solar thermal systems require trained professionals for installation, solar thermal technology is generally less complex than solar PV technology.

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    Maintenance and Reliability

    Solar thermal systems are typically less sensitive to light compared to solar PV, making them more efficient on cloudy days. However, solar PV systems generally have a longer lifespan than solar thermal. Both systems require some level of maintenance for optimal performance, but the overall reliability and lifespan of the solar PV systems is an important factor to consider.

    Applications in the UK

    The UK has various applications for both solar PV and solar thermal systems. Let's explore their usage in different sectors.

    Domestic Use

    In the UK, both solar PV and solar thermal panels are popular options for homeowners. Solar PV systems are widely known for generating electricity and reducing overall consumption from the grid, while solar thermal systems are primarily used for heating water and providing additional space heating in homes. Solar thermal panels can save homeowners up to £1,350 over their lifetime, reducing their carbon footprint by an average of 6.6 tonnes of CO2. A typical solar thermal system in the UK costs around £4,000.

    Industrial and Commercial Use

    Solar PV panels can be found on large-scale commercial and industrial rooftops throughout the UK. They help businesses reduce their dependence on grid electricity and contribute to cost savings. On the other hand, solar thermal systems are more likely to be used for process heating and cooling applications, such as manufacturing, agriculture, and food processing, where a significant amount of heat is required. Their high efficiency (around 70%) makes them suitable for various industries as they require less space than PV panels.

    Community Energy Projects

    Community energy projects involving solar PV and solar thermal systems are increasingly being seen in the UK. These projects are aiming to provide localised, sustainable energy solutions for the benefit of local residents and the environment. They might include, for example, solar PV installations on community buildings or shared solar thermal heating systems for social housing estates. By combining resources, participants can share the risks, costs, and benefits, while managing their energy usage more efficiently and sustainably.

    Government Policies and Incentives

    The UK government has been actively promoting the adoption of solar energy, with a particular focus on solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. Support for solar PV deployment is centred around grid systems balancing, grid connectivity, and financial incentives, helping to address the challenges associated with solar energy implementation.

    Financial support for solar PV installations comes in the form of grants and tax incentives. For instance, homeowners can benefit from the Green Deal programme, which offers advice on energy-saving improvements to their properties. Households with rooftop solar panels can save more than £1,000 in total installation costs, and an additional £300 in yearly energy expenses.

    It is essential to note that the VAT-free period for solar PV systems will end in March 2027, after which the VAT rate will return to 5%.

    When it comes to solar thermal systems, the UK has a much lower deployment rate compared to its European neighbors. Germany has ten times more, and Austria enjoys twenty-five times more solar thermal capacity per citizen. Opportunities for growth in the solar thermal sector are apparent, and the UK government is encouraged to integrate solar thermal strategies into its sustainable energy policies.

    Considering the size of both solar PV and solar thermal systems, a 3-bedroom home with 3-4 occupants would require a 3-4 kW solar PV system, costing between £5,520 and £6,040 or a 3m²-4m² solar thermal system, which is slightly more affordable at £3,100-£4,200.

    Environmental Impact

    Solar PV and solar thermal systems both harness sunlight to generate energy. However, their environmental impacts differ due to their respective conversion processes and technologies.

    Solar PV systems convert sunlight into electricity by using photovoltaic cells, typically made of silicon. The (PDF) Environmental Impacts of Solar-Photovoltaic and Solar-Thermal Systems with Life-Cycle Assessment study indicates that manufacturing solar PV panels produces greenhouse gas emissions and requires energy and water consumption. On the other hand, solar PV panels have an overall positive environmental impact, as they can generate clean electricity for several decades, with minimal emissions during operation.

    Solar thermal systems, alternatively, use sunlight to produce heat for domestic hot water or space heating. These systems tend to have lower environmental impacts during production and installation as compared to solar PV systems, but their overall efficiency is lower than that of PV panels. Solar thermal technology can be divided into two main categories:

    • Flat-plate collectors: Absorb sunlight to heat a fluid that circulates through tubes in the collector.
    • Evacuated tube collectors: Use vacuum tubes to capture and transfer heat to a fluid.

    Both solar PV and solar thermal technologies have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. It is essential to consider the specific application and location when assessing the environmental impact of either system in the UK.

    While solar PV systems generally have a broader environmental impact due to their manufacturing process, their increasing efficiency and production technologies are expected to reduce their ecological footprint over time. Solar thermal systems are more suitable for households with high hot water demand and limited space for solar panel installation.

    The Future of Solar Energy in the UK

    Emerging Technologies

    As the UK moves towards a greener, more sustainable future, emerging technologies will play a significant role in increasing solar energy adoption. One such technology, tandem silicon cells, are expected to generate 1.5 times more power compared to existing, similarly sized modules today. These high-efficiency modules are potential game-changers in the industry, contributing to solar energy cost reductions in the years to come.

    Additionally, the UK's focus on photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) has also led to ongoing research and development. Breakthroughs in these technologies will result in improved efficiency and reduced costs, making solar power more competitive with conventional energy sources.

    Integration with Other Renewable Energy Sources

    One of the critical aspects of the UK's journey to a greener future is integrating solar power with other renewable energy sources. This integration is essential not only for increasing overall renewable energy generation but also for ensuring grid stability and preventing energy shortages during cloudy or low sunlight periods.

    Collaborative initiatives between solar energy and other renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro, and biomass will be crucial to achieving the UK's net-zero carbon emission goals. In fact, a recent study suggested that covering 61% of south-facing commercial roofs with solar PV could supply all the energy needed for UK businesses.

    Investments in energy storage and smart grid technologies will also aid in the seamless integration of solar power with the broader energy system. These advancements will not only reduce reliance on fossil fuels but also optimise the distribution of renewable energy, paving the way for a brighter and cleaner future for the UK.


    Solar PV and solar thermal technologies both offer unique benefits and considerations for UK homeowners. Choosing the ideal system depends on the specific requirements of the property and the energy demand patterns.

    Solar PV panels are better suited for properties with high electricity demand, as they generate electricity directly. They can also be used to charge electric vehicles and store excess energy in solar batteries for use during non-sunny hours. On the other hand, solar thermal panels are more efficient at converting solar energy into heat (70-90%) as opposed to solar PV's 15-25% conversion rate for light into electricity.

    Thus, solar thermal systems are ideal for those who need a large proportion of hot water for their daily activities. Due to the high efficiency rate of solar thermal panels, they can be smaller, allowing for more of them to be installed in limited spaces if necessary.

    In summary, solar PV and solar thermal systems provide viable solutions for different energy needs. Homeowners in the UK should assess their property's specific requirements, available roof space, and energy consumption patterns before deciding which system is most suitable for them. Both technologies contribute to a greener future and reduced reliance on traditional energy sources.

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    Mark McShane
    Content Writer
    Mark McShane is a seasoned professional in the solar industry and the owner of Skills Training Group, a leading provider of solar training and education. With years of experience in the field, Mark has developed a deep understanding of the latest trends, technologies and best practices in the industry. His expertise and passion for solar energy have helped countless professionals develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the fast-growing field of solar energy. Whether you’re an aspiring solar professional or an experienced industry veteran, Mark is an excellent resource for anyone looking to enhance their skills and knowledge of the solar industry.
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