Here’s the first thing you should know about how solar panels work:
To create electricity, solar panels use the light of the sun and not the heat.
Accept our apologies if that fact was already obvious to you, but it’s something a lot of people aren’t clear on. (It’s also the reason that solar panel efficiency decreases as the temperature of the solar panel rises).
Now that we’ve established that it is the light of the sun that acts as fuel for solar panels, we should mention that sunlight is made up of little packages of energy called photons. The next question is: What do home solar panels do with these photons?
Well, solar panels (also known as “photovoltaics” or “PV panels”) are made up of several individual solar cells. These solar cells are made of semiconductor materials like silicon (the same stuff that’s in your computer). This semiconductor material is treated so it is positively charged on one side and negatively charged on the other. This creates an electric field.
When photons strike the semiconductor material in a solar cell, electrons are knocked loose. At this point, these electrons can be captured in the form of an electric current and put to work. Before this happens, however, electrical conductors must be attached to the positive and negative sides of the solar cell.
Check out a visual explanation of how solar panels work in this great video from the United States Department of Energy:
So what happens after a solar electric panel produces an electric current?
The solar power produced by a photovoltaic panel still needs to go through one more process before it can start powering the gadgets in your home. The electricity that is produced by a solar panel is direct current or “DC”. The power used by the appliances you plug into your electrical sockets is alternating current or “AC”.
How do we turn “DC” power into “AC” power?
This conversion is accomplished by a very important piece of hardware called a solar power inverter. The electricity produced by a solar panel is taken to an inverter where it is converted to the “AC” electricity your home needs. This electricity can then be put to work powering your Xbox or running your washer and dryer.
Are you wondering if installing solar panels will mean that you never have to pay another electric bill?
Unfortunately, you may not get rid of your electric bill completely. Whether you still have an electric bill depends partly on the size of the solar installation on your roof. If you have a small or mid-size installation, it might not produce enough power to completely offset the amount of power consumed in your home every month.
The amount of sun your location receives is also an important factor. Needless to say, a solar installation produces a lot more power when it receives a lot of sunshine. In a very sunny area it will be easier to make your electric bill disappear completely.
So now you know how solar panels work and if anyone asks you’ll know just what to tell them. If you’re interested in learning more about how the energy of the sun is harnessed and put to work, check out our page on how solar power works.