How do solar panels work?

Everyone is affected by energy in modern society. One look at your electricity bill every month should be enough reason to reconsider some alternatives when it comes to a more affordable energy source. Even if you do not worry about the cost of traditional electricity, there are the environmental effects, which no one can escape from, this comes in the form of a dwindling ozone layer and increasing carbon emissions from traditional power plants that use coal and oil.

The solution? Solar panels. But how do these touted alternatives to traditional energy work? To understand, you first need to know what is solar energy. You see, the sun is an actually a star and is essentially a huge ball of fire in space, imagine a giant bonfire giving off massive amounts of heat, this surely will attract living things since they need the heat and light right? This is one analogy for solar energy.

The heat given off by the sun is actually potent enough to be harnessed as an energy source. This is especially apparent when it comes to sunny places such as California, or Hawaii. To be more specific, the energy released by the sun comes in tiny packets of energy called photons, and the sun releases enough photons every hour to theoretically satisfy the Earth’s energy need for a year. So in the near future, we might be able to rely on one hour of sunlight for one year of electricity.

The sun provides

How do we do this? With solar panels, these are the devices you can use to harness solar energy and the photons released by the sun. Solar panels are equipped with cells that have conductors which form an electrical circuit. When the photons from the sun hit the solar panel’s surface, these cells then split the photon’s electrons from its atom and this makes the electrons flow into the solar cell’s circuits. Then, when electrons flow through a circuit they generate electricity. Basically, multiple circuits from a solar panel mean more electricity generation which does require more solar panels, and of course, horizontal space.

Think of the regular Photovoltaic (PV) solar panel as an exposed giant rechargeable battery outdoors. They essentially both have cells and similar construction principles, only solar panels are made to harness energy from photons and not electricity from chargers. Most solar panels are also constructed with silicons and with positive and negative layers to form its circuitry for the electrons to flow.

However, before you could use that electricity converted by the solar panel’s cells, it will have to be transformed first. This is because the electricity which solar panels generate are direct current (DC) and the standard current which electronics and appliances in the US use is alternate current (AC). Hence, an inverter is actually needed in order to convert the DC to AC so your home can actually use the electricity.

The catch, however, is that you need a considerable amount of horizontal estate in order to set up solar panels since they cannot be blocking one another– that will defeat the purpose. All panels need to have direct contact with sunlight in order to generate electricity. Of course, this also means solar panels only work during daytime, since the light that the moon reflects from the sun is not enough to harness as an energy source. There is some confusion sometimes regarding this idea since homes and establishment still have electricity come night time, but this is actually due to the stored energy of solar panels during its work in the daytime.

That said stored energy actually comes from the excess electricity produced by the solar panels which you never got to use. Thanks to the inverter, this excess electricity is then stored to the utility grid in your area after the energy you need has been provided. This process is included in a mechanism called net metering where you are only billed for the electricity you used. As such, you do not need to worry about having too much during sunny days since the excess will be stored and you will be billed sparingly depending on your use.

The future is not cloudy

However, solar panels also generate and store enough electricity during cloudy weather, as long as the sun is still up in the sky. This depends on the brand and the make of the solar panel, but typically they still produce around 10 to 25 percent of their usual output during sunny days. So they definitely work during cloudy weather.

You also might be thinking that the hotter it is, the better for solar panels. Well, this is not the case, since excessive heat can actually lessen the output of solar panels by 10 to 25 percent as well, meaning unusually hot weather is actually more trouble than it is worth for solar panels. This can be problematic for tropical and arid countries. Typically, solar panels today have an optimal operating temperature of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit, beyond that and your panels might start getting lower outputs of electricity. They are, after all, still machines and machines to overheat.

What this means is that solar panels might be more effective in places like San Francisco compared to places like Las Vegas despite the latter having more sunny days. All this boils down to the temperature of the place which may be detrimental to optimal electricity outputs if it is too high. For the record, utility bill savings estimates in San Francisco have amounted to about $1,500 per year because of solar panels, this is according to an analysis conducted by SolarCity.

Cleaner and greener

So as it turns out, temperate and even cool but sunny areas are better for solar panels compared to outright hot areas with constant sunlight. That is, of course, until the technology for solar panels evolve sometime in the future where it can be made more resistant to heat degradation, though this is still a stretch right now.

If there is any consolation to that idea, solar panels have actually improved a lot more right now and have become more efficient under cloudy weather. So a lack of apparent sunlight during the daytime may no longer be an excuse why solar panels are not being used. There is still a long way to go before people no longer need to worry about the sun not shining in full, but progress is being made everyday in the solar industry form leading companies such as SunPower.

Another thing about solar energy is that they are becoming a lot more available and affordable to the public right now. In the past decade, they were mostly employed only for private and large establishments and businesses. Now, a regular family in the suburbs with some spare horizontal areas such as roofs can definitely afford a good solar energy setup and save a lot each year.

So now that you know how solar panels, work, it is time to get started on expanding your knowledge on the benefits of solar power, both for you and the environment. Visit our other articles about solar energy as they can guide you on any progressive choices you will make on your shift to solar power, and remember, SunPower will take care of your energy needs.


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