How Solar Power Works

"Can you explain in simple terms how solar power works?" It's a question that's often asked by those considering going solar. The concept of getting electrical power from sunshine seems far fetched and the stuff of science fiction, yet it all makes perfect sense once it's explained and not made over complex.

How Solar Power Works to Power Your Home

Solar Powered HomeTypical Solar Powered Home
(Source: ©Don Bell)

The following explanation is simple, yet it should give you a basic understanding of how photovoltaic cells and panels operate to power your home.

What Beach Sand and Solar Cells Have in Common

Back in 1839, Becquerel became the first in solar power history to discover that when sunlight strikes certain materials, electrons are knocked free from their associated atoms. A current is created from these moving electrons that flows through the "material" to provide electrical power.

The "material" used today is most often some type of "doped silicon." Doping simply means that other mineral elements are introduced into the material to make it a better conductor of electricity. In most electrical applications these elements (impurities) would be unwanted, but in solar power applications, they are essential.

That's because pure silicon is not a good conductor of electricity. Adding another element in just the right way (such as phosphorus, for example) turns silicon into a semiconductor: a solid substance having an electrical conductivity between that of an insulator and that of most metals and ideal for manufacturing solar power cells.

Raw, Unrefined Silicon on Solar PV CellPiece of Raw, Unrefined Silicon Resting on Solar Power Cells
(Source: ©iStock/wloven)

In specialized applications, gallium-arsenide or other materials can be used instead of silicon, but because these materials are less plentiful, their cost is significantly higher.

The silicon used in making crystalline silicon cells is often found in ordinary silica beach sand, so it is extremely plentiful and therefore costs less than other materials. Consider it nature's gift to green energy.

Girl Holding Crystalline Silicon CellGirl Holding Crystalline Silicon Cell on a Silica Sand Beach
(Source: ©iStock_141078_7115)

How Do Solar Panels Work?

The answer to "how solar power works" would mean little if it weren't for photovoltaic (PV) cells and the panels that contain them. They provide the practical means for harvesting the sun's energy.

The silicon phosphorus compound is arranged in layers and then connected to a grid to enhance the flow of electrical current and reduce resistance losses. Terminals are installed to permit the electric current to flow eventually into the home electrical system. Finally, the entire assembly is covered with protective glass forming what's called a photovoltaic (PV) cell or solar cell.

The PV cells are then wired into a module commonly known as a PV panel, and the panels can then be connected in series to form a complete system or array. PV panels come in different sizes that determine how much electricity they can generate. Generally, the larger the panel surface area, the more electrical power produced. Of course, the larger panels are priced higher.

The Importance of Solar Panel Efficiency

How well solar power works depends a great deal on the efficiency of the photovoltaic system being used.

Although the sun's energy reaching the Earth's surface at the equator is about 1000 watts per square meter (1.2 square yards), not all of it is considered useable at any given location. Aside from expected losses owed to latitude, atmospheric conditions, dust, and other factors, the PV panels themselves only produce electrical current at 10% to 15% efficiency.

This means that the growth of solar electrical power greatly depends increasing panel efficiency. But, there are some hard-to-overcome physical constraints involved to increase efficiency, so until new photovoltaic discoveries are made, considerable research is focussed on lowering the cost of PV panels to make solar energy competitive with other sources of electrical energy.

The articles on this website will provide you with a basic understanding how solar power works and how you can benefit from it, but you should also consult with a qualified solar technician. He or she will be able to present you with the best choices of what you need for meeting your optimum energy requirements.

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