The Basics of How Solar Panels Work

Everyone knows that solar panels turn sunlight into energy. But how exactly do they turn energy from sunlight into usable electricity?

The High-level Explanation

As sunlight hits a solar panel, it creates an electric field, which is otherwise known as electricity. This electricity, which is in DC (direct current) form, flows to the edge of the panel into a conductive wire. The conductive wire then brings this electricity to an inverter that transforms it from DC to the AC (alternating current) electricity needed to power buildings.

After the electricity is converted to AC power, another wire transports it from the inverter to a breaker box. The breaker box then distributes the electricity throughout the building as needed. Any energy not needed in the building flows through the utility meter, causing it to run backward. This credits your property for excess energy generation, and in some places, you can be credited by the utility company for this excess energy that is flowing into the electric grid.

The Molecular-level Explanation

Solar panels are made from many small photovoltaic cells. These cells can convert sunlight into electricity and are made up of semi-conductive materials, usually silicon. This semi-conductive material is able to conduct electricity and maintain the electrical imbalance needed to create an electric field.

As sunlight hits the photovoltaic cells in a solar panel, the energy from the light, known as photons, is absorbed, which knocks electrons off atoms. These electrons then float around freely within the cell.

A solar cell is designed with positively and negatively charged semiconductors that are sandwiched together. These oppositely charged semiconductors create an electric field. This electric field forces the free electrons to flow towards conductive metal plates that line the cell. This creates an energy current, the strength of which determines the amount of electricity that each cell can produce.

As electrons hit the metal plates, they are directed into a series of wires that lead to an inverter. Almost everybody needs AC electricity in order to power their buildings. Since a solar panel produces a DC current, it must go through an inverter that converts it to AC power before it can be used.

Once the electricity is converted into usable AC power, it is sent to a breaker box, where it is then distributed throughout the building as needed to power everything from lights to appliances to electrical devices.

Any electricity that is not used will be sent to the electrical grid through the utility meter. The utility meter measures the flow of electricity to a building from the electric grid and vice versa. Unless you have gone completely off-grid through the use of energy storage systems, you will still need energy from the grid, especially at night when solar panels are not producing energy. However, you can significantly reduce the amount you pay for this depending on how much excess energy your solar system puts into the grid.

The Benefits of Going Solar

There are many reasons why going solar is both advantageous and beneficial. In addition to financial benefits through lowering electric bills and being energy dependent, there are a number of other benefits to installing a solar system on your property, including:

  • Reducing air pollution and water usage
  • Increasing the value of your home
  • Reducing dependence on nonrenewable energy
  • Control over rising energy costs
  • Reducing your carbon footprint

Many of these benefits work towards improving the health of the Earth in the long run. Hydropower and nuclear energy both require a lot of water. Many times, dams need to be built, which can have significant impacts on ecosystems.

Nuclear energy could contaminate water and the surrounding environment to the point where it is inhabitable if something were to go wrong. Fossil fuels create a lot of air pollution, and by going to greener energy sources, pollution can be reduced significantly, leaving cleaner air for all.

Solar panels are highly scientific in terms of how they work, but it doesn’t take a scientist to see the benefits that solar systems can bring to homeowners. A company experienced in solar products and installations can walk you through solar solutions that are best for your situation.

Honey's Air & Solar has over 30 years of experience serving Modesto, CA, and the surrounding areas. Our technicians are passionate, certified, licensed and well-trained in all areas of solar design and installation. We also offer indoor air quality services and a range of heating and cooling services, including installation, repair and maintenance. Call us today for a free estimate.

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