How do solar panels create solar energy?

Updated

Rows of solar panels in an open field
Image source: NJ Spotlight

Solar panels are designed to capture the sun’s energy, absorbing its rays and turning them into solar electricity. The photovoltaic effect, or the scientific term for converting sunlight into electricity, is a bit complex. But don't let that stop you from learning how solar panels work!

Find out how much a solar system would cost for your specific home

Here’s a brief introduction to how solar panels work before we dig into the details:

  • Solar cells absorb sunlight, which generates an electric field by knocking electrons loose
  • A solar inverter converts this energy into usable electricity
  • Excess energy is sent back to the grid or a solar battery

Let's dive in!

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    What are solar panels made of?

    Solar panels are made up of polysilicon, metal, and glass. A solar panel's solar cells, the photovoltaic (PV) component of the solar PV panel that creates electricity, is made up of silicon as well.

    Most of the solar panel is made up of PV cells which are then covered by glass and a back sheet for protection. These layers are held together by a metal frame that can be fitted to solar racking on a roof.

    Each solar panel also has a junction box on the back of it. This box is what holds and protects the important wiring that carries electricity to the inverter.

    Dig deeper: Read more about how solar panels are made.

    How do solar panels harness energy?

    Solar panels are built to generate electricity from the sun via the solar cells that they’re made of. Solar cells act as semiconductors and are made from monocrystalline silicon and boron. Silicon and boron are the elements that make them photovoltaic – giving them the ability to convert sunlight into electricity.

    Within the silicon cell wafers, there is a negative charge and positive layer. The negative layer has extra electrons, or the element that conducts electricity, and the positive layer has space for the electrons to go.

    When the sun’s photon energy hits the panel, the intense energy forces these electrons to move from the negative to the positive layer. This movement is what generates an electric field, and thus electricity.

    This electricity needs somewhere to go to be usable. Cue the rest of the solar system, from the wiring to the solar inverter.

    What do solar inverters do?

    When solar modules generate electricity, it’s in the form of direct current or DC electricity. But the electricity your home uses is known as alternating current or AC electricity. To create usable electricity with solar panels, you need a solar inverter.

    Solar inverters do a lot of the heavy lifting to ensure the solar system is working properly. Not only do solar inverters convert electricity, but they also communicate with and send excess energy to the grid.

    In the event of an electrical power outage, solar panels must stop sending an electrical current to the grid. Sending live electricity to wires that people are working to fix is dangerous. A solar inverter stops the electricity from flowing during a power outage.

    There are a few different types of inverters, such as string inverters, microinverters, or hybrid inverters – but your solar installer will help you choose the best one for your solar panel system.

    Learn more: Dive into solar inverters.

    Your solar inverter is in constant communication with the grid, sending energy to it or pulling energy from it when you require extra power. Working in tandem with the grid is key to how residential solar panels work.

    Why is the grid important?

    The electricity grid is a key component of most residential solar systems. Unless you're off-grid, your home will remain connected to the grid to provide energy to utility companies, potentially benefit from net metering, and aid you in using the grid as a backup power source.

    Net metering

    Net metering is one of the best financial incentives for going solar. If your solar panels generate more energy than your home uses, that energy is sent to the grid and you are then compensated for that energy.

    Alternatively, you can store that extra battery in a solar storage battery for use during emergencies, cloudy days, or nighttime use. If you do not want a solar battery for energy independence, it sometimes makes more financial sense to rely on the grid and net metering.

    How can you make solar panels work for your home?

    Solar technology has been around for many years, but may not be top of mind unless you're considering switching to solar. For many, if a solar array is hooked up and working, then there is no reason to think about how solar panels work.

    How solar photovoltaic panels work as an energy source is fascinating. There's a lot going on when the sun hits the panels. Electrons are moving around within the photovoltaic cells to create DC electricity that your inverter then converts to AC renewable energy for your home.

    This all happens quietly and out of view, unless something is wrong with your system. This is why we suggest homeowners use a local installer who is more likely to be around for the lifetime of your panels when they need to be serviced.

    Find out how much a solar system would cost for your specific home

    Key takeaways

    • Solar panels are made of a few key components: polysilicon, metal, and glass, but can do a lot with those few materials.
    • The entire solar system, from the panels to the inverter, works together to get the electricity from the panels to your home.
    • Maintaining grid connection is a key part of most residential systems, acting as a backup power source and as a place for excess power to be sent to the grid for use.
     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Ana Almerini

    Web Content Specialist

    Ana is a content specialist at SolarReviews. She uses her experience in marketing and knowledge from her master's in climate communications to research and review the solar industry.

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