Harnessing Sunlight: How solar panels work

By Rob Madden

Energy Independence, green energy, Home Electricity, lower energy bills, net metering, renewable energy, Residential Solar, solar 101, solar basics, solar energy, Sustainable Living

How Solar Panels Work

The marvels of modern science and engineering have allowed us to harness the power of the sun. In an age when environmental consciousness is at its peak, we will dive into the basics of how solar panels work. Solar energy presents an efficient, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Solar panels, the fundamental tools for harnessing solar power, convert sunlight directly into electricity through a process known as the photovoltaic effect. This essay explores the intricacies of how solar panels work, enabling us to utilize the most abundant source of energy on earth—the sun.

Solar Panels

Solar panels comprise multiple solar cells, also known as photovoltaic cells. These cells are the heart of the system, doing the critical job of converting sunlight into electricity. Each cell contains a semiconductor material, typically silicon. When sunlight—made up of particles of light known as photons—strikes the cell, the semiconductor absorbs the light.

Solar 101 basics - how solar works on homes in Phoenix AZ
Solar 101 basics – how solar works on homes in Phoenix AZ

Silicon, the most commonly used material in solar cells, has unique properties that make it ideally suited for photovoltaic use. Silicon atoms are arranged in a tightly bound structure, and each silicon atom has the capacity to hold up to four electrons in its outer shell. However, pure silicon isn’t a good conductor of electricity, so the silicon in solar cells is modified with impurities to facilitate the flow of electricity. This process is known as “doping.”

There are two types of doped silicon in a solar cell: N-type, which has extra electrons, and P-type, with extra spaces for electrons, known as “holes”. When these two types of silicon come into contact, an electric field is created at the junction. This electric field causes the electrons to move from the N-type side to the P-type side.

When a photon of sunlight hits a solar cell, it can give an electron enough energy to break free from its bond. The electric field at the junction between the two types of silicon will cause the free electron to move toward the N-type silicon. This movement of electrons creates a flow of electricity.

Solar Inverter

However, the electricity generated by the solar panels is in the form of direct current (DC), which isn’t typically useful for most appliances, which require alternating current (AC). Therefore, the DC electricity must be converted into AC. This process is carried out by a device called an inverter. This is a key component on how solar work.

After the conversion to AC, the electricity is then routed to the property’s electrical panel, where it is distributed to the various circuits within the building. In many cases, solar power installations also include a battery storage system. This enables the storage of excess electricity generated during peak sunlight hours, which can be used when the sun isn’t shining, such as at night or during periods of bad weather.

Net Metering

An interesting aspect of solar panels is their relationship with the grid. If the solar panel system is grid-tied, any excess electricity not used by the property can be fed back into the grid. Many utility companies offer a system of credits for this excess power, effectively enabling the electric meter to run backward in a process known as net metering. This system can lead to significant savings on energy bills and, in some cases, allow the property owner to earn money from their solar panels.

Solar Limitations

Despite their numerous benefits, solar panels do have some limitations. Their effectiveness can be impacted by factors such as geographic location, climatic conditions, and the angle and direction of installation. Additionally, while solar panels have significantly decreased in price over the years, the initial setup and installation costs can be high.

In conclusion, solar panels work by employing the principles of physics and the unique properties of silicon to convert sunlight into electricity. The sophisticated arrangement of components within the panel facilitates the absorption of photons, generation of electrons, and conversion of DC to AC power. Despite some limitations, solar panels offer a promising avenue toward sustainable and environmentally friendly energy production. Understanding how solar panels work is crucial in appreciating their potential in addressing our global energy needs and environmental concerns. With advancements in technology, the efficiency and affordability of solar panels are set to improve, bringing us one step closer to a future powered by clean, renewable energy.

Rob Madden

About the author

Rob Madden is an experienced real estate broker in the Phoenix metro area, having worked in the industry for over 28 years. He has helped many home buyers and sellers navigate the local real estate market, and is considered a trusted expert in the field. Rob is committed to making the buying or selling process as seamless and straightforward as possible for his clients, and provides hands-on assistance at every stage of the transaction. In his free time, Rob enjoys being a Scoutmaster for a local Scouts BSA troop, hiking, backpacking, photography, and playing pinball.

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