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How Does Solar Power Work?

October 30, 2019

Revolutionizing the way that consumers generate and use electricity, solar power is starting to pop up everywhere! From atop mass commercial industries, like IKEA and Walmart, to the rooftops of residential homes, they can even be spotted in the form of solar farms across the country. Solar not only saves people tons of money, empowers communities, and creates excellent jobs, solar energy also offers enormous promise as a non-carbon-emitting renewable resource. In recent years the technology and quality of solar panels have improved immensely, and cost has plunged to a much more affordable rate! So how exactly does the technology behind solar panels work?

How solar power works

Each solar panel is made up of multiple rows of photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity. A photovoltaic cell is like a sandwich made of two slices of silicon, a non-metal element that has conductive properties, used as a semiconductor. When photons (light particles) from the sun come in contact with the cell, electrons are knocked free of their atoms and begin to move around. This process, known as the “photovoltaic effect,” initiates a flow of electricity called a Direct Current (DC). The DC is then transferred to an inverter and converted into alternating currents (AC). This is the electricity that then moves through wires to power your home while any excess energy produced flows back to the grid. Other components that make up a solar panel include a protective glass casing, insolation, and various wiring mechanisms that allow electricity to flow. The glass exterior ensures durability and protection for the underlying silicon PV cells. Insolation shields the cells from increases in temperature that may cause panel performance to be less efficient. Typically there are two types of silicon cells manufactured for solar panels: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Monocrystalline cells are created from a single continuous crystal structure and are the most advanced technology of the two as they have been around longer. Monocrystalline cell formats allow more room for electrons to move, offering a high-efficiency technology.

We’ve put together an infographic below to show the process of how solar panels works:

How long will solar panels last?

A solar system will generate clean energy for a long time! Most home systems will last decades! Even beyond this period panels will likely continue to produce clean electricity, because the parts do not quickly wear and the PV cells within them have layers of protection!

What maintenance is required?

Good news! Solar panels will last decades without much maintenance at all. However, you may need to replace an inverter at some point during the lifespan of your solar system, if your panels are equipped with a single string inverter. These, usually come with a warranty (5-15 years). Unlike the PV panels, they do not slowly lose efficiency but may one day wear out and shut down altogether. With mass improvements to technology, new microinverters are included in the production of panels. These microinverters are installed on individual panels throughout a solar system. A few advantages to these new microinverters include their long lifespan (up to 25 years), assistance in canceling out adverse effects of partial shade coverage, and also that homeowners can avoid mounting a large string inverter box on the side of their home.

Will solar panels work on cloudy, rainy, or cold days?

In short- YES! Although clouds and rain are not ideal for solar panels, they will still generate electricity in these conditions. If you have any doubts, consider China and Germany, not always the warmest or the sunniest of places, though they are the two of the leading countries for solar energy! Solar panels generate power by photons or light particles, not through heat. So in winter months or colder weather in general, your panels will be just as efficient if not more than they are in hot temperatures!