A hand holding a miniature house towards the sky as sunlight streams in

Summary

  • Solar power harnesses the raw energy from the sun and converts it into usable energy – typically through a photovoltaic or thermal system. A solar photovoltaic (PV) cell uses replenishable sunlight and converts it into electricity. In comparison, solar thermal systems use the sun’s radiation to heat liquid or air directly.
  • If you’re short on space, solar thermal systems are ideal because they are smaller than PV fixtures. In the early days of solar power, thermal solutions were more affordable and compatible with solar storage options. However, new advances in the industry mean that spatial efficiency is now the only notable advantage that thermal systems have over solar PV panels.
  • In comparison, solar PV can be an excellent option for solar companies, commercial and residential investors alike. PV panels often have a longer lifespan, require less maintenance, and offer more lucrative prospects.
  • If you’re keen to support renewables and generate a passive income stream, solar PV panels (and batteries) are worth exploring. Not only can these systems save you money, but it’s often more straightforward to find government-backed incentives related to them. The increased demand for solar PV systems means they are generally more affordable and make more of an impact when it comes to your carbon footprint.

Introduction: Solar Thermal vs Solar PV – What’s the Difference?

The solar power sector is growing at a colossal rate, with more people turning to solar panels to facilitate their energy needs and reduce their carbon footprint. But did you know there are two primary varieties of solar panels to choose from?

Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have one key element in common – they both use the sun’s raw energy to generate sustainable power. Both options use the same replenishable source, but they appropriate it differently. A solar PV system uses this natural energy to produce electricity, whereas a solar thermal system heats water and air.

For solar-powered households, it’s unlikely you’ll have to choose one over the other, as both systems can work well in unison to generate electricity and heat your home as needed. However, for investors ranging from entrepreneurs to landowners, it’s vital to consider which system will bring a good return on investment (ROI) and demonstrate high growth potential.

In this article, we will look at how solar thermal and solar PV systems differ. After appreciating the advantages of each approach, we will contemplate which variety helps solar companies shine the brightest.

The Highlights of Solar Energy

One study found that using solar power in a residential home can avoid 75% of grid-related CO2 emissions and large-scale water wastage.

In general, the reasons to switch to solar power are extensive as it is an excellent option for households, businesses and the planet. Below, we’ve summarised some of the main benefits that solar systems can offer.

Solar panels can lower household bills – Whether you choose a solar PV or solar thermal system, you might have an opportunity to decrease your utility bills with support from clean, renewable sunlight. With a solar energy system, generating electricity is much more direct, which can lower your expenses. What’s more, by taking control of where your power comes from, you are safeguarding the future of your energy bills (which will help to keep them consistent).

Solar power can be stored for later – Solar batteries and water tanks can store energy for later use. Storage solutions are particularly beneficial at night when the sun has stopped shining – since darkness limits solar energy yield. Solar storage allows you to harness the sun’s power and use it at any time of day (or night) to meet your energy needs. Moreover, installing a storage system, such as a lithium-ion battery, can potentially turn any excess solar energy that has been generated into a commercial asset.

Renewable sources are impacting climate change – From residential solar panels to large-scale solar farms, the clean energy obtained via sunlight is helping to reduce the effects of climate change worldwide. By minimizing the dependency on grid energy, solar panels can indirectly reduce fossil-fuel use and lower emissions. Using green alternatives like solar power may also help to improve our air quality, water supplies, and soil. Consequently, the environmental benefits are extensive. One study found that using solar power in a residential home can avoid 75% of grid-related CO2 emissions and large-scale water wastage. Solar PV panels, in particular, are great for planet-conscious people because they don’t pollute water or emit harmful gases.

The solar industry is providing thousands of new jobs – If you’re in the market for a new energy source, solar is the way to go. Not only does it provide clean power, but supporting green energy initiatives can help to boost national and global economies. According to analysts at the International Energy Agency, solar power is predicted to be one of the largest sources of power by 2050 – a landmark goal to reach if we are to protect the planet’s future. Furthermore, Clean Energy Canada estimates a 50% increase in clean energy jobs compared to the proportion of fossil fuel jobs that may be lost (9%). These figures demonstrate the increasing demand for solar power and highlight the importance of continuing to support these renewable projects. Along with reducing greenhouse gases and pollution, solar energy systems also help to provide jobs and accessible power for more and more people.

What Do Solar Thermal Systems Offer?

Although the modest size of a thermal system is desirable in some cases, the apparatus has a shorter life span than solar PV and is best for heating water.

Solar thermal systems are commonly used to heat water. However, you can also use these panels to heat your home. Compared to solar photovoltaic resources, the technology is relatively simple. Once a certified installer fits the system to your roof, it collects sunlight and directly heats the liquid in the tubes. This heat is then transported to a cylinder inside your home and is ready to use. Although solar thermal is not as popular as solar PV, there are some interesting insights to consider.

Initially, solar thermal power was the preferred option because it was cheaper than PV technology. However, as time went by and the demand for solar power increased, the prices of solar PV panels dropped, making them more affordable. What’s more, in the early days of solar generation, solar thermal was the only option that involved storing energy for later use. As hot water is typically stored in the home, it is convenient to access on demand. Nowadays, storage solutions are also available for solar PV systems (via batteries).

While solar thermal technology was the preferred option when the solar industry first dawned, ongoing research and development efforts meant that the gap quickly closed. With that said, the primary reason to choose a solar thermal system over a photovoltaic one is to save space. A PV system can occupy up to 10m2 of roof space, while a solar thermal setup may only need 3 – 4m2.

Its smaller size is due to a higher efficiency rate, meaning that solar thermal technology, while relatively simple, converts about 90% of the radiation it absorbs into heat. In comparison, a solar PV system turns around approximately 15-20%. On this theme, it’s helpful to note that ongoing breakthroughs are causing PV efficiency figures to grow at a promising rate (according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Although the modest size of a thermal system is desirable in some cases, the apparatus has a shorter life span than solar PV and is best for heating water. Moreover, thermal systems feature multiple moving parts, which means the installation process is more complex (and often more costly). The system will also require more maintenance since mobile elements increase the likelihood of faults and issues arising over time.

Worryingly, some controversial reports link thermal solar farms to bird fatalities, which could make solar PV more favourable from an ethical perspective. However, more detailed investigations need to be carried out before we can reach any conclusions.

An infographic demonstrating how a solar PV panel converts sunlight into electricity.

How Do Solar PV Panels Compare to Solar Thermal Ones?

From powering homes and businesses to charging electric vehicles, the potential for solar PV goes far beyond that of solar thermal.

In comparison to solar thermal, photovoltaic technology absorbs sunlight through a semiconducting material, such as silicon. The sun’s energy facilitates a flow of electricity within the panel, and an inverter makes the power usable – converting it from a direct current (DC) to an alternating one (AC). There are several reasons why solar panels are becoming so common. According to a 2019 overview issued by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the costs associated with solar photovoltaic systems have dropped by 82% since 2010, which has made them accessible to the broader population. What’s more, the same report suggests that the cost of solar PV is decreasing much faster than its thermal counterpart, which (while still impressive) has only reduced by 47%.

While solar thermal was traditionally the cheaper option, government-backed initiatives have helped to level the playing field. Various feed-in-tariff (FIT) schemes have significantly contributed to the success of solar PV at different points in time by providing a sustainable second income for qualifying residential and commercial prospectors.

To take the financial savings further, commercial solar PV panels and solar farms can potentially lead to huge savings on electricity bills. When used in conjunction with a solar storage battery, commercial investors can also sell their excess energy for a profit. Solar storage typically comes in the form of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that will last for a few years. A storage system is a great option to extend your use of renewable energy into the night, but it can also be a strategic tool to increase your ROI.

Further to this, homeowners and investors can potentially reap the rewards of solar PV for a long time to come. As fossil fuel supplies will inevitably run out, harnessing the sunlight for the betterment of the planet and your finances is an attractive prospect. Therefore, as the grid prices connected with fossil fuels may continue to increase, a solar PV system (complete with a battery) may help to safeguard your future energy bills.

Solar PV is also a flexible way to use renewable energy and reduce your carbon footprint. Compared to a solar thermal system, which can only heat water and air, solar companies can launch photovoltaic initiatives across various industries in a relatively adaptable fashion. From powering homes and businesses to charging electric vehicles, the potential for solar PV goes far beyond that of solar thermal.

In addition to the versatility and substantial financial gains that are commonly associated with solar electricity, there are currently more government incentives directed towards solar PV projects. For example, if you own a small to medium-sized business in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, or New Brunswick, you may qualify for the Climate Action Incentive Fund. This financial incentive may cover 25% of the project cost, including the expenses associated with installing solar power systems. Government incentives like this one are vital to helping the country switch to greener alternatives. They can also support the growth of solar companies.

Which Solar Unit is Best for Solar Companies?

A key factor that supports the proliferation of solar PV systems is the fact that there are incentives to prompt people to invest in renewable energy.

It is often easier to find a solar PV provider and installer within the solar industry because these systems tend to have more benefits overall. Interestingly, Canada is home to many substantial solar PV power plants, and the future looks bright. On the other hand, there are no solar thermal power plants –  possibly due to the development costs and lack of incentives. Moreover, large solar thermal plants may not be appropriate for Canada’s landscapes because they are best situated in deserts where solar radiation is at its highest.

A key factor that supports the proliferation of solar PV systems is the fact that there are incentives to prompt people to invest in renewable energy. Alongside the Climate Action Incentive Fund, the Canadian government offers the Canada Greener Homes Grant, which will see homeowners potentially receiving up to $5,000 to fit greener alternatives in their homes. These changes include new windows, insulation measures, energy storage solutions and (of course) solar PV panels.

With that said, solar thermal technology may still be useful to homeowners, especially when paired with a solar photovoltaic system.

Can solar thermal and solar PV systems work together?

It is relatively common practice to use solar thermal and PV panels in conjunction with one another, especially in a household setting. A homeowner can have a pump operated water heater installed alongside a solar photovoltaic system to help make the switch to a greener home. While some people may want to choose between the two variants, it might prove beneficial to have at least one or two thermal systems alongside your solar PV panels. Doing this will help to reduce the carbon footprint associated with grid energy, as well as to heat your water and home.

Understandably, choosing between the two options requires careful consideration, but it’s good to keep in mind that any form of solar power is likely to make a positive impact on the environment.

Solar Thermal vs Solar PV: Which One Shines Brightest?

As far as business investments and solar farm projects are concerned, solar PV panels may be the best option because there are more financial opportunities associated with them.

Investing in solar power shouldn’t be a spur-of-the-moment decision. We advise you to research the options available to you and decide what works best for your lifestyle or business. Better yet, speak to a financial advisor or solar company representative for a more in-depth perspective.

As far as business investments and solar farm projects are concerned, solar PV panels may be the best option because there are more financial opportunities associated with them. For instance, photovoltaic cells can generate excess energy that can be sold back to the national grid for a profit, increasing your return on investment. This is particularly desirable for utility-scale projects because their capacity is much greater. When more renewable energy is generated, it’s more likely to impact your savings (if you’re a private homeowner) and ROI (if you’re an investor).

On the other hand, if you aim to reduce your company’s emissions and environmental impact, both solar thermal and solar PV technologies do this very well. However, solar panels may be slightly better because thermal technology requires water to cool the system.

For homeowners, the considerations may be different from business investments. If you simply want to switch your home to clean energy and lower your household emissions, you may find that a combination of solar PV cells and solar thermal units works best for you. As we outlined a moment ago, doing this will enable more household activities to be supported by renewable energy.

In comparison, if you’re looking for an opportunity to generate passive income for your home, investing in a solar PV system may be right for you. Having a combination of thermal and PV solar options is suitable for making your home greener. However, given that you cannot sell solar thermal energy, you won’t necessarily make extra money in the process. Therefore, installing PV panels is the best opportunity to increase your income and save the most money.

One final factor to consider is your budget for the solar project. While solar thermal units were once cheaper, it is no longer the case. Especially with the increase in government incentives, installing solar PV is often more affordable than thermal. On top of this, photovoltaic cells tend to last longer and need less maintenance because, while the technology is more complex, there are fewer moving parts involved.

Closing Thoughts

At first glance, both solar thermal and photovoltaic systems can have some fantastic benefits –  such as reducing the devastating impact of fossil fuels on the environment. However, with that said, various developments in the industry have seen PV cells come out on top. Since 2010, module costs have dropped by 89%, and governments continue to announce new incentives. These factors make solar PV panels an attractive investment opportunity. Compared to solar thermal, businesses may see a greater return on investment from choosing solar photovoltaic systems, especially when a solar battery is involved.

If you’re considering investing in green energy, it’s an ideal time to take the next step. With the solar industry seeming to grow brighter by the day, it’s worth exploring the financial incentives and grants that are currently available (since some may have deadlines).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What’s the difference between solar thermal and solar PV?

 

Solar thermal technology heats water and homes, replacing central heating and gas heating systems. Thermal units are relatively simple; once an installer has fitted the system, it collects sunlight and heats the liquid in the tubes. This water is then transported inside the home, ready to use. In comparison, solar photovoltaic cells absorb sunlight through mirrored panels and create an electrical charge. An inverter then converts this power into usable energy.

Both thermal and PV systems have advantages for home and business owners. However, if the goal is to maximise profitability, solar PV is likely to be more lucrative, as the excess power that is generated can become an energy commodity.

 

Can solar thermal and solar PV systems be combined?

 

Some households may opt for a combination of solar thermal and PV panels to make their energy consumption more eco-friendly. Together, both of these solar power systems will help to make your home greener and reduce your dependency on fossil fuels.

 

Which solar power system is best for solar companies?

 

It’s relatively easy to find solar companies that provide photovoltaic systems because the demand is higher, making it affordable and accessible. The current government incentives play a crucial role in making renewable energy projects available to the broader population. The Climate Action Incentive Fund and Canada Green Homes Grant are among the most popular options to help reduce the expense of installing solar projects. However, these are only available for solar PV systems – meaning that solar companies with these options shine brighter in the industry. What’s more, these solar companies will have the most influence in the sector because solar PV is versatile and can aid many industries. In fact, it has even become part of the electric vehicle charging solution.

 

How can you invest in solar companies?

 

Investing in solar projects is a great way to reduce the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and potentially create an additional income stream. So, how do you go about investing? Well, there are various options available to you – from buying solar stocks and exploring renewable energy funds to installing solar panels on your residential or commercial building. Interestingly, investing in residential solar panels may also add value to your home. Whichever position you’re in, investing in renewable energy is a possibility. From a sustainability standpoint, it also helps to reduce the effects of climate change.

 

What are the drawbacks of solar energy?

 

The primary drawbacks of solar power include initial costs and weather-dependent factors. Installing a solar array, inverter, and battery can cost a considerable amount at the beginning. However, with feed-in-tariff schemes and government incentives, you may be able to reduce your expenses. Over time, you might even boost your return on investment and reap the rewards. Moreover, the cost of solar PV has decreased by 82% since 2010, and with the demand continuing to rise, the figures are likely to decline further.

It’s a common myth that solar PV panels cannot power your home from day to night. While the solar panels themselves won’t produce energy at night, a storage system is the key to collecting the energy for later use. Depending on your situation, you will have the option to use the excess energy during the night or sell it to the grid.

 

Westbridge Energy Corporation

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