Unveiling the Science Behind Solar Energy
If you’re a homeowner or business owner considering a renewable, more cost-effective way to generate power, you’ve likely considered installing solar panels. And solar panels are everywhere these days. How a solar panel works is probably an intimidating question for some. They sit atop roofs and road signs as well as cover acres of open fields.
So you’ve probably wondered, “How does a solar panel actually work?” We’re here to shed some light on the amazing technology that transforms the fiery energy of our sun into clean, renewable electricity.
The Anatomy of a Solar Panel
Your everyday solar panel is a bit like an energy sandwich!
- The Top Layer: (often glass) allows sunlight in and protects the solar cells from damage
- The Encapsulant: a transparent, anti-reflective layer used to hold the solar cells in place that repels moisture and dirt improving long-term performance
- The Solar Cells: the layer of silicon semiconductor cells that captures solar radiation and turns it into usable energy
- A Second Encapsulant Layer
- The Backsheet: the external skin of the panel that holds the layers in place within the panel frame.
- The Junction Box: the central point where each of the silicon cells interconnects through electric wires
Understanding the Photovoltaic Effect
The light that is emitted from the sun is called electromagnetic radiation. Solar panels capture this radiation and turn it into a useful energy source through the photovoltaic effect.
This process occurs when the energy present in sunlight – photons – hits the solar panels. Photons react with their silicon semiconductor cells. This causes electrons in the atoms to move around wildly breaking free from their atomic bonds. These electrical currents are then captured by wires fitted around the silicon cells.
For a deep dive into the photovoltaic effect, check out this article by Energy Education.
Capturing Electricity & Converting DC to AC Power
Just like the thousands of cars jammed up on a superhighway, these wild electric currents need to be directed in order to get to their destination – our electrical outlets.
That’s where metal conductive plates come in. Positioned strategically, these act as traffic directors for the electrons. They collect the current and guide it out of the solar panel and through electrical wiring.
Unfortunately, the electricity that comes out of solar panels is direct current energy (DC). And the electrical grid as well as the devices in our homes and businesses require alternating current energy (AC).
To convert DC to AC power, solar panels are paired with solar inverters. A solar inverter is one of the most important parts of a solar energy system. It makes solar energy usable in our homes and businesses.
There are several different types of solar inverters available depending on your individual needs:
- String Inverters – a single unit that receives multiple strings of electrical energy from a solar system all at once
- Micro Inverters – fitted to each individual solar panel and converts DC to AC on the rooftop level
- Power Optimizers – located on each panel, these direct DC to a string inverter which allows individual monitoring of each panel digitally
- Hybrid Inverters – allows a homeowner or business owner the option of sending excess electricity back to the grid or storing it in a battery
To learn more about the process of installing solar panels to your home or business, click HERE.
Connecting to the Grid & Battery Storage
Homeowners and business owners have a choice when it comes to how they use the electricity that their solar panels produce.
1. You can connect your solar system to the electrical grid. This means that when your system is producing more electricity than your home or business needs, the electricity is sent back to the grid for immediate use by all utility customers. And when you’re using more electricity than your system produces, when it’s cloudy or at night, you’re now pulling electricity from the grid.
This helps balance energy consumption and can offset your energy costs. Your utility company will bill you for the difference between what you supplied to the grid and what you pulled from the grid. The amount of money you can potentially save is determined by your state net metering policies.
To learn more about California’s current net metering policies, click HERE.
2. You can connect your solar system to battery storage. This allows you to keep all of the energy your system produces and become energy independent. Solar battery storage can be expensive, but some states offer incentives for buying battery storage.
So, there you have it …
This incredible technology allows us to turn our abundance of sunshine into sustainable and renewable energy, offering an alternative to fossil-fuel based energy production and consumption.
Understanding the science behind how a solar panel works equips us to confidently make informed choices for our homes and businesses as well as champion a cleaner, greener future.
As solar energy technology advances and becomes increasingly accessible, it will play a vital role in reducing our carbon footprint and securing a sustainable energy future for generations to come.