How Do Solar Panels Work? A Comprehensive Guide

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( — March 13, 2022) — Solar energy is booming in the United States. The average cost of solar panels has dropped nearly 70% as major markets for solar continue to mature around the country. On average, there is the equivalent of 18 million homes powered by solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar thermal power each year.

With government incentives in place, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon and save on energy costs down the road.

But how do solar panels work exactly?

Most people are unaware of basic solar panel science and what goes into turning out energy from your home solar panels.

In this article, we will walk you through everything you need to know about solar panel technology and what to look for when buying solar panels for your home or business.

A Short History of the Modern Solar Panel

The story of solar panels started in 1954. At this time, Bell Laboratories built the first silicon photovoltaic cell.

This wasn’t the first time that solar energy was turned into usable energy. But in 1954, solar power was actually turned into a resource that could power devices over a longer period of time.

These initial solar cells were highly inefficient compared to today’s standards. For example, the efficiency of converting solar energy into electricity was about 4%. In comparison, a monocrystalline panel today has about 20% efficiency and continues to rise.

As you might imagine, the adoption of using the cells for solar energy was slow. However, a variety of government incentives and policies slowly helped to reduce the cost of going solar for the average citizen. As discussed above, there are millions of Americans who now use solar power as a primary source of energy for their homes.

So, How Do Solar Panels Work?

Here’s the way that the system works. First, sunlight comes in from the atmosphere and strikes the solar panels. When it strikes the solar panels it creates an electric field.

This electricity flows to the edge of the panel and ultimately into a conductive wire connected to the panel’s wafer or cell.

That conductive wire helps to bring electrons to the system’s inverter. At the inverter, the transformation from DC into AC current takes place. AC current is what powers buildings and most other common household items.

Once AC electricity conversion occurs, there is another wire that transports it from the inverter onto the main panel or breaker box on the system’s property. The breaker box helps to distribute that electricity to where the electrical system needs it most.

If there is any electricity that’s leftover, it can be sold back to the utility company. Solar panels can be set up to flow directly to the utility meter and back onto the grid. Whenever the electricity flows in this direction toward the utility company, you get a credit from the company for generating solar.

The Science Behind Solar Cells

Solar photovoltaic panels are actually a series of many different cells. The photovoltaic in the name means that energy from sunlight can be converted into electricity.

The cells that are used are made out of silicon most often. Silicon is a semiconductor material. This means that it can conduct electricity to a proper extent while still keeping an electric field possible with an imbalance of electrons. There needs to be an imbalance of electrons for there to be an energy difference that causes the electricity to move.

The Cell Function

Ultimately, when sunlight comes in and strikes the semiconductor, the energy from that light is absorbed as photons. Photons help to knock loose a variety of electrons which can then move around the cell.

The solar cell uses both positive and negative charges on the semiconductors. The orientation of these charges helps to create a constant electric field that the displaced electrons can flow within.

The cell works to push the electrons in a certain direction. The goal is to push electrons toward a metal plate that helps conduct electricity on the outside lining of the cell.

The flow of electrons across the semiconductor materials is a current. The stronger the current is, meaning the more electrons per unit time, the more electricity that cell can produce.

Eventually, the lost electrons will strike the metal plate and generate traditional current in the wires on the other end. At this point, it is like any other form of electricity used in your household or business.

Inverters and Household Current

However, the panels need an inverter to convert DC into AC current. By convention, alternating current will power most utilities within buildings and homes.

Therefore, the inverter turns electricity from direct current to alternating current. Now it is in the proper form for use within your home.

As discussed above, the electricity is then shifted through the wires over to the breaker box or electrical panel. Once distribution occurs, you can use the electricity to directly power the lights, devices, and other appliances in your home or office.

Does It Make a Difference What Type of Solar Panel You Use?

The short answer is yes. There are many different types of solar panels available on the market to install onto your home or business rooftop.

Most solar panels employ silicon. That’s because silicon is a very good semiconductor that is also nonmetallic.

Crystalline solar panels employ silicon. Both of these types of solar panels can power your home or office. Crystalline solar panels can either be monocrystalline panels or polycrystalline panels.

Monocrystalline panels are relatively more expensive panels. This is because they have the best energy efficiency and power output.

Monocrystalline panels are composed entirely of one specific silicon crystal. This creates a unique structure that helps to improve efficiency.

On the other hand, polycrystalline panels also come from raw silicon, however, the silicon is melted into a mold before use. This creates a different type of structure that is still effective but has lower efficiency compared to monocrystalline panels.

Thin-film panels also provide another option in the market. Many of these are made from silicon, however, they can also be made from cadmium telluride or copper.

The nice thing about thin-film solar cells is that they can be very flexible and highly portable. This makes them excellent for off-grid use or in the backcountry on trips. However, they are less efficient and are not very ideal for a residential or commercial panel installation.

The Cost of Using Solar Energy

Many people who want to invest in the benefits of solar energy want to know if it will save them money in the short or long term. The good news is that in the last five years, there has been a significant decrease in the cost per watt of solar energy.

For example, in the second half of 2016, it cost $3.36 per watt. However, in the first half of 2021, this number dropped 18% all the way to $2.76. Depending on where you live, there may be special incentives or rebates to encourage you to use solar power.

There is still a federal investment tax credit that is a primary incentive for anyone interested in turning their property solar. It allows you to take away 26% of the cost of installing a solar system out of your taxes.

But it is important for people to act quickly. This is because, in 2023, the tax credit will drop to 22%. In the following year, it will go away completely.

What Is Best For You?

You have to weigh the pros and cons of different materials before deciding which is right for your solar installation system. If you want to purchase a monocrystalline paneling system, this will cost more upfront. It may take years for you to pay off the cost of the installation.

However, with tax credits and incentives and proper maintenance and use of the system, it can save you thousands of dollars over the long term.

Remember that you don’t need to necessarily go all in. You might be able to use a solar panel or two to help supplement your energy resources so that you don’t have to pay for every watt.

If you live in the Houston area and aren’t sure if going solar makes financial sense, it may help to talk to a local installer to see what the available options are for you. We recommend first trying to compare with Blue Raven.

Understanding the Modern Solar Panel Science

At the end of the day, solar panels are an incredible invention to turn the power of the sun into energy we can use every day.

So, how do solar panels work?

In the end, it’s actually pretty simple. Using special silicone and other unique materials, electrons flow from the sun onto the photovoltaic cell, through an inverter, and into our energy storage systems for distribution.

The applications for solar energy continue to rise every year as more and more people go solar.

If you enjoyed this article about solar panel science, please check out our other articles!