How Do Solar Panels Actually Work?

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Solar energy has become increasingly popular over the last several years, with a new solar panel getting installed to a home or a business every 2.5 minutes in the US alone. This makes solar power the fastest growing option of generating electricity in the United States.

Solar panels are much more commonly seen now, compared to just a few years ago, and you’ve probably seen plenty mounted next to large factories, along highways, or even close to places like swimming pools and hotels.

You might be considering going solar yourself and reducing your dependence on the electric grid, but before you do, it might be a good idea to learn about how the production of solar energy works. Keep reading to find out.

How do solar panels work to generate electricity?

To answer the question of how solar energy works, we must first deal with how electricity is made in more general terms. To generate electricity, we need some kind of fuel. Most traditional fuels used to create power have a nasty habit of causing severe damage to the environment, both from the process of extracting said fuel and from the process of using it.

For example, a conventional power plant will most commonly use coal. First, we need to get the fuel out of the earth, which means digging into mountains to extract it. This causes damage to the ecosystem and destroys many plants and animals in the process.

Other fuels used by traditional power plants are things like natural gas, which needs to be brought to the surface of the earth and transported through a network of pipes, or uranium, which needs to be contained and handled in rigorous conditions; otherwise, it can cause unspeakable damage. Clearly, obtaining and delivering fuels for the production of electricity is highly labor-intensive and potentially dangerous.

As we utilize fuel to produce energy, the harm continues. As mentioned earlier, nuclear power brings an inherent risk of radioactive poisoning and massive explosions, while fossil fuels like natural gas and coal produce greenhouse gasses and air pollutants.

Solar energy, on the other hand, comes from the bright star that makes life on Earth possible. No dangerous mining, big pipelines, or radioactive materials necessary; all we need is the Sun to keep shining, as it always has, and always will. This infinite resource is clean, safe, and easy to capture, and we’ve been getting better and better at utilizing it as technology evolves.

The photovoltaic effect

You might have heard of the term photovoltaics or PV, as a term to describe solar energy. This term describes the process in which solar panels take sunlight and convert it into electricity. The first part of the word refers to photons – particles of light, while the second part relates to power – voltage. This is the most common type of solar energy and the one that relates to solar panels; although it should be noted that there are other types of solar power such as solar thermal, that is a topic for another day. Using photovoltaics, sunlight is converted into electricity through the use of a relatively simple chemical process, which we will describe below.

Firstly, the process of creating solar power begins when the photons of sunlight fall on a solar panel, after making the journey of around 93 million miles in about eight minutes, traveling at the speed of light from the surface of the Sun. This panel could be sitting alone, or wired together with its brothers and sisters into what we call a solar array.

So, what exactly is a solar panel?

Simply put, it is a form of semiconductor – a plate made of silicon cells containing electrons. Substances like boron and phosphorous are applied to these cells to generate a magnetic field. This results in some cells having a positive charge, and others having a negative charge. The only thing the sunlight does as it shines on the panel is that it destabilizes the electrons within the cells, allowing the flow of the negatively-charged electrons towards the positive side of the solar cell. This is what we refer to as current or discharge of electricity. The renewable energy of this movement is gathered using metal conductors and transferred into wires.

At this point, the electricity we have is called DC, or direct current. Without getting into specifics, what you need to know is that your home appliances require AC – alternating current. This is where a neat little device called a solar converter (or solar inverter) comes into play. Despite its unassuming appearance, without this box, you would not be able to use solar power in your home. Newer inverters do more than just switching the electricity into AC. They manage the whole operation of your solar set-up, making it more independent and efficient.