What are solar panels used for?
Solar panels are designed to generate electricity from the sun's energy. We can use them for everything from powering a single street light to providing electricity for an entire town. You can even use solar panels paired with battery storage to cut ties with the utility and go off-grid.
Wherever you need power, solar technology can provide it. To find out how we'll review how solar panels work, the different ways we use solar panels, and the benefits of solar panel systems.
- The most common type of solar panels are photovoltaic panels that use silicon solar cells to turn sunlight into electricity.
- Solar panels are used to power homes with clean energy while also lowering electricity bills.
- You can use solar panels wherever you need electricity for things like powering RVs to lighting up your yard with solar-powered string lights.
- Solar panels are becoming a part of everyday life with an increasing number of utility-scale and residential installations all across the country.
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How do solar panels work?
When people say "solar panels," they are usually referring to crystalline photovoltaic (PV) panels that are made of silicon solar cells. These PV cells are the component that generates electricity from the sun's rays.
Crystalline silicon cell wafers have two layers: one that’s negatively charged and one that’s positively charged. When the sun hits the cells, electrons move between the layers, creating an electric current.
In a typical grid-tied solar panel system, that electric current travels from the panels to a solar inverter, where it’s converted into power that your home appliances can use. The electricity generated by solar panels can also be used to charge batteries, so the power can be used later in the day when the sun isn’t shining.
Solar panels aren’t the only way to use solar power! Solar thermal systems, for example, use the actual heat of the sun, and it can be used for solar water heaters in your home or by utilities in concentrated solar power applications. While not as popular as solar panels, you may see solar thermal systems from time to time.
What are solar panels used for?
We’ve all seen solar panels on a home, but they can actually provide power in a lot of other ways!
Solar panels can:
- Power your home
- Provide off-grid power
- Support the electric grid, and
- Provide electricity in hard-to-reach places
Powering your home
Solar panels are a great way to provide electricity to your home. Before your installation, your solar installer will figure out how many solar panels you need to cover your electricity usage. The panels will generate electricity that is then sent to your home and powers your appliances. Because your appliances use the solar energy generated on your roof, you take less electricity from your utility, which lowers your electricity bills!
Some lucky homeowners also live in states where net metering is available, meaning they can “sell back” any electricity their solar panels generate that their home doesn’t use to their utility company. That excess energy is usually applied to your electric bill as a bill credit, that then covers the cost of electricity you use from the grid.
You can use solar panels to power your home and lower your electricity bills! What’s not to love?
Leaving the grid behind for off-grid living
Solar panels can be used to cut ties with your utility company and start living off the grid. Living off-grid is attractive to many people, from those eager for energy independence to people interested in living a cleaner, greener life.
Solar panels are an essential part of the equation of making an off-grid lifestyle work. To be completely disconnected from the utility, you essentially need to make your own mini-grid. Solar panels are usually the easiest way to do this.
Off-grid solar panel systems require lots of battery storage to supply electricity at night when the sun isnt shining. Many off-grid homes also use gas generators as backup for when there hasn’t been enough sun to meet all of the homes electricity needs.
Even if you don’t want your whole house to be off-grid, you can use solar panels for camping and boondocking trips. Portable solar panels can provide electricity when you need to charge your phone or run some appliances in your RV.
Read more: Learn which small portable solar phone chargers are best and which 200-watt panels we recommend.
Supporting the grid
The electrical grid was built to rely mostly on fossil fuels. But as it ages and becomes increasingly strained, solar panels are becoming an essential power source for utilities. Utility-scale solar projects require a lot of land, and are typically huge ground-mounted systems.
Solar battery storage is often paired with utility-scale solar because it allows energy produced during the day to be stored for use at night or if the grid is experiencing a surge in demand. Solar panels also help utilities reach their renewable energy goals, which are becoming more ambitious every year!
Even the solar panels installed on your roof can help your utility company, especially when connected to a home battery. In California, for example, home battery sources prevented power outages by providing extra support the the grid during extreme heat. Recognizing this potential, utilities in Texas are now offering the option for homeowners to be paid for their excess battery power in times of grid strain.
Providing electricity in hard-to-reach places
In any location where light is needed, solar panels are the answer. For instance, there are solar-powered string lights, Christmas lights, and even security cameras! Solar panel-powered lighting in towns or parking lots is also becoming more popular.
What is great about these is that you can hook up lights or security cameras wherever you want one; no need to have an outlet handy. These devices typically have a small rechargeable battery that keeps the lights running when you want them. A true set-it-and-forget-it type of power.
What are the benefits of solar panels?
Solar power has numerous benefits, but the most popular is that it saves money on electric bills. This is an even bigger benefit now as utility costs continue to rise. Solar panels can lead to thousands of dollars saved over their lifetime!
It’s not all about money, though. Solar panels also reduce pollution, and when coupled with battery storage, they can get you one step closer to energy independence. Utility-scale adoption of solar panels reduces country-wide dependence on fossil fuels, which helps create a more stable supply of energy, and reduces carbon emissions.
And of course, solar panels are convenient! When you need light in hard-to-reach places, like a shed light or security camera, you don’t need to worry about an outlet to connect them to. Solar panels eliminate the need for cables and provide a seamless, clean installed look.
The solar industry is expanding
You will start seeing solar panels used for many more applications because of ambitious clean energy goals and the expansion of and investment in solar manufacturing within the United States.
Manufacturing plants for solar panels, batteries, and electric vehicles are being announced throughout the country thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
President Biden has ambitious goals to transition the United States to 50% reduction in fossil fuel use compared to 2005 levels by 2050. With increased emphasis on renewable energy expansion, the potential for jobs within the industry continues to build.
Almost 18,000 people work in the solar industry. As solar becomes a more attractive option for homeowners across the country, that number is expected to increase.
Want more solar in your life?
Solar panels are not going anywhere anytime soon. Solar power systems will continue providing abundant electrical energy for the energy needs of homes and communities.
The entire country is moving forward to lower our collective carbon footprint by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and expanding solar arrays from state to state.
Adding solar panels to your roof is the best way to help us shift to a renewable world. The SolarReviews calculator can help you determine how much solar will cost based on your typical energy usage, local incentives, and local installation rates.