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How Exactly Do Solar Panels Work?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Have you ever wondered how solar panels use sunlight to generate electricity? What exactly are those panels made of? Here’s a primer on how solar energy works and don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz!

When the sun shines on a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the configuration of photovoltaic (PV) cells in the panel. PV cells are made up of semi-conducting material such as silicon. This energy creates a flow of electrical current, and the energy created by all of the cells adds up to help generate enough electricity to power your home.

For those of us who need a science refresher, an electric field occurs when opposite charges are separated. The PV cells are composed of layers of positively charged and negatively charged materials, and when light particles (called photons) hit the silicon on top of a solar panel, they cause the release of electrons from atoms, thus creating an electrical current. Other components of the cells turn these electrons into direct current (known as DC), which is captured by the wiring in solar panels, and is then converted to alternating current (AC) by a device called an inverter. AC is the category of electricity used in homes and businesses when you plug things into normal wall sockets. Fun fact: DC current is used in any electronic device, including cell phones, that use a battery for a power source. DC is also used to charge batteries, so rechargeable devices come with an AC adapter that converts alternating current to direct current.

An inverter is one of the most important pieces of equipment in a solar energy system, since it converts direct current to alternating current, which the electrical grid uses. In a home solar energy system, the inverter not only converts solar energy into alternating 240-volt current for your electricity needs in the home, it can also monitor the system. Advanced inverters are used in solar-plus-battery storage systems and can improve the stability of the electrical grid and support power quality.


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