You know that solar panels absorb sunshine, which somehow converts to electricity so that you can wash a load of laundry, run your AC on a hot day, and binge a night of Netflix on the couch. But exactly how do solar panels work?
Energy is created because of the photovoltaic effect‚ a process that allows matter to emit electrons when exposed to sunlight. Keep reading as we take a simple, step-by-step look at the science behind solar panel technology.
STEP 1: SUNLIGHT HITS THE SOLAR PANELS
Solar panels are made up of several layers of material, and this is where the magic of solar energy lies. A standard solar panel is made of photovoltaic cells, also known as solar cells. Each one is constructed of two layers of silicon — a thin semiconductor wafer — which allow it to absorb and convert sunlight into electricity. In addition to the layer of silicon cells, each individual solar panel also contains a metal frame, a top layer of glass casing to protect the solar cells, and wiring that enables a current to flow from the silicon cells.
The solar panels are grouped together in a solar array and installed on rooftops, where the solar cells can absorb sunlight during daylight hours.
STEP 2: SOLAR CELLS CREATE AN ELECTRICAL CURRENT
Remember how each solar cell is made from two layers of silicon? Well, one layer is positively charged and the other is negatively charged, which forms an electric field.
When sunlight strikes a solar cell, it energizes the cell and causes electrons to be knocked loose from atoms within the semiconductor wafer. Those loose electrons are set into motion by the electric field that surrounds the wafer, and this motion creates an electrical current. This is known as the “photovoltaic effect,” and it’s the basis of the science of solar panel technology.
STEP 3: THE ELECTRICITY IS CONVERTED
The solar panels are now working hard to transform sunlight into energy that can power your home. The only problem is that the electricity being generated is direct current (DC) electricity, while most homes are powered by alternating current (AC) electricity.
And that’s where the solar inverter steps in like a knight in shining armor. These inverters can be configured as one inverter for the entire system or as individual microinverters attached behind the panels. The inverter acts as the go-between, easily converting DC electricity into AC electricity. At this point, your panels will be capable of powering your appliances and electronics.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the photovoltaic process:
- A silicon solar cell absorbs radiation from the sun
- When sunlight interacts with the silicon cell, electrons begin to move around, which creates an electric current
- The wires with the solar panel capture this direct current (DC) electricity and send it to a solar inverter, where it’s converted to AC electricity.
STEP 4: CONVERTED ELECTRICITY FROM THE SUN POWERS YOUR HOME
After the inverter converts the solar energy from DC to AC electricity, it runs through your electrical panel and is distributed within the home to power your electronics and appliances.
It works exactly the same way as the electricity you get from your utility company through the power grid. Since you still remain connected to your traditional electricity provider, you can draw additional electricity from the grid in the event of an emergency, or sell your unused solar energy back to grid — which is much more common among solar owners.
STEP 5: A UTILITY METER MEASURES YOUR ELECTRICITY USAGE
When you install solar panels on your roof, they’ll be connected to your home’s utility meter. The amount of electricity your solar panels produce can be accessed and measured by this meter.
Because a solar energy relies on the power of sunlight, it makes sense that your panels may not be able to capture enough light on cloudy days or at night. However, a solar panel system is a true workhorse and will most often generate more electricity than is necessary to consume during daylight hours. And that’s why a meter is used to measure the electricity flowing in both directions — to and from your home.
Thanks to a utility billing arrangement called net metering, you can sell any surplus power from your panels back to the grid, and your utility provider gives you credits on your bill in exchange. Then, during the times when the solar panel system is underproducing — such as at night or on cloudy days — you can tap into those net metering credits to offset your electricity bill. It’s a win-win!
LET OUR TRUSTWORTHY INSTALLERS HELP YOU JOIN THE SOLAR REVOLUTION
Knowing exactly how solar panels work is the first step in the journey to independence from dirty energy. The second is learning about all the ways you can save money on the cost of your solar panel installation — and we’re here to help you do just that.
As the largest residential solar installer in Texas, Freedom Solar has outfitted countless homes, and even commercial businesses like Whole Foods and Office Depot, with solar power. Best of all, we offer safe, contact-free installations to keep you and your family protected during the pandemic.