The ABCs of Electricity: How Does Solar Panel Energy Work?

by | Aug 26, 2021 | Blog

A certified solar installation team fitting a solar panel energy system.

Summary

  • Solar panels capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity through the photovoltaic (PV) effect. This renewable energy source is then transformed into usable power through an inverter. Solar power can be stored in a battery for later or sold back to the national grid.
  • There are two types of solar power – thermal and PV. Solar thermal technology is excellent for heating rooms and water, whereas solar PV cells generate electricity to power electrical appliances. While both have their advantages, solar panels are preferred for their versatile nature.
  • Generating electricity from a replenishable source like the sun has a myriad of benefits. Solar power is now considered one of the cheapest forms of electricity, making it accessible, sustainable energy. What’s more, renewable energy can reduce pollution and take the pressure off fossil fuels.
  • Solar panels are a low-maintenance way to generate electricity and will keep future energy bills low. That said, the solar market has been on a consistent rise, making investment opportunities very exciting.

Introduction

While solar equipment was relatively expensive, its increased popularity has caused the price to decrease by 99% in four decades.

Solar energy derives from the sun’s rays – a renewable energy source. Surprisingly, the history of solar power goes back centuries as humans have utilized the sun’s radiation to light and heat rooms since the 7th Century BC. Nevertheless, the first solar panel was only invented in 1954. While solar equipment was relatively expensive, its increasing popularity has prompted the price to decrease by 99% in four decades. This decline is largely due to the climate crisis and the growing need for renewable energy. In fact, solar power has been at the forefront of sustainability discussions for years as people seek more sustainable ways to power cars, heat homes and generate electricity.

Understanding how solar panels work will help you appreciate how they can help you lower your carbon footprint and save money. This article will discuss how solar panels work, why they are leading the green energy initiative, and why they may be the future of electricity.

What is Solar Energy?

The sun’s energy is replenishable, which makes it a renewable source. This is what makes solar power sustainable compared to finite fossil fuels. An advanced solar panel harnesses the energy from the sun and converts it into usable power. Solar panels can be installed in homes, corporate buildings and even rural towns. The International Energy Agency predicts that solar will dominate the energy sector by 2050, a testament to this versatile source of power’s potential.

The Two Types of Solar Power: Thermal vs PV

There are two types of solar power technology – thermal and photovoltaic (PV). In short, solar thermal systems use the sun’s radiation to heat liquid or air directly. An indoor water tank stores the contents, ready to heat the air and water. In comparison, solar PV cells convert sunlight into electricity through an advanced silicone panel. Solar panels have many uses as they can power homes, businesses, communities and have even found use within the automotive industry, powering electric charging points. Both solar thermal and solar PV have their benefits; however, a solar panel tends to prevail for its versatility and technological advancements.

Are you interested in solar thermal technology? Find out how solar thermal and solar PV compare.

How Do Solar PV Cells Work?

In this case, solar energy may become a second source of income for some households, which is a great way to reduce the community’s dependence on the grid.

A solar panel comprises photovoltaic cells that convert the sun’s raw energy into usable electricity to power electrical appliances. This section will break down the complex process of converting sunlight into energy.

Photovoltaic cells absorb photons – The sun’s radiation consists of photons – tiny particles of electromagnetic radiation. As sunlight beams onto a solar panel, the PV cells absorb the photons, knocking electrons loose inside the system. This process creates a gap for positive energy and the negatively charged electrons to move around. It’s this movement that creates a charge – an electrical current. This is known as the photovoltaic effect – a physical and chemical process that converts the sun’s energy into usable electricity.

Solar panels generate a direct current – As sunlight particles enter the system, a thin layer of semiconducting material (typically silicone) directs the electrons to create an electrical charge, otherwise known as a direct current (DC). Each solar panel consists of multiple photovoltaic cells to generate an adequate amount of power. Each PV cell generates approximately half a volt of electricity, so manufacturers combine them into one solar module to increase energy production.

An inverter converts direct current to alternating current – Residential homes run on alternating current (AC); therefore, solar panels cannot power homes independently. Installing an inverter is essential to convert solar power from DC to AC, so it’s compatible with your household energy needs. After an inverter has switched the current to AC, the electricity can be used.

Store excess solar panel energy or sell it back to the grid – Occasionally, solar panels generate more energy than a household needs. Excess power can be stored in a solar battery or sold back to the grid. In this case, solar energy may become a second source of income for some households, which is a great way to reduce the community’s dependence on the grid.
An diagram depicting the various components of a solar panel.

Solar Tiles and Slates

Over the last few decades, there have been notable innovations within the solar power industry, from energy storage solutions to space-based solar power. Along with these advancements came solar tiles. Instead of mounting a large solar module on residential rooftops, roofing tiles are now being fitted with individual solar systems, creating a discrete renewable energy system. Solar tiles make installing solar power much more efficient and space-saving.

What are the Best Conditions for Solar Energy?

Despite some areas of Canada being known for their icy winters, solar panels are a great option for planet-conscious Canadians.

Contrary to popular belief, solar panels can generate electricity in most weather conditions, including rainy days! However, the optimum weather for power generation would be a clear blue sky and moderate heat. Depending on the density of cloud cover, the sun’s rays can still reach the solar panels and operate as intended.

Do Solar Panels Work on Cloudy Days?

Solar panels can still produce power on cloudy days, as the sun’s rays can filter through the clouds and reach the PV cells. That said, cloud cover and snow may reduce electricity production – but it shouldn’t halt it entirely. Despite some areas of Canada being well-known for their icy winters, solar panels are an excellent option for planet-conscious Canadians. In fact, Saskatchewan and Ontario are some of the best solar spots in Canada because of their year-round sunshine and attractive solar market.

Benefits of Solar Panel Energy

Solar power is leading the clean energy movement to reduce the effects of climate change and help create a more sustainable future. This section will outline the potential benefits of transitioning to solar power and why it has become one of the best renewable energy sources available.

Solar Panels are Low Maintenance

With no moving parts, it’s unlikely that you’ll need repairs or replacements – reducing waste and pollution associated with manufacturing.

Solar panels are easy to maintain. With no moving parts, it’s unlikely that you’ll need repairs or replacements – reducing waste and pollution associated with manufacturing. Solar panels require a clear surface so the sunlight can reach the PV cells; this means your panels only need an occasional clean to ensure optimal energy production. However, rain helps to wash away any unwanted debris, including dust and snow. Finally, aside from cleaning, you may want to consider trimming nearby trees to prevent them from overshadowing your solar panels.

Solar Power Reduces the Demand for Fossil Fuels

Coal, oil, and gas are the most common fossil fuels contributing to global warming and pollution.

Whether you plan to switch to solar power entirely or supplement your energy usage with PV panels, solar energy can reduce the demand for fossil fuels. Coal, oil and gas are the most significant contributors to global warming and pollution. The oil and gas sector, in particular, produces the most greenhouse gases in Canada. Therefore, switching to solar will reduce reliance on the grid, reducing the demand for nonrenewable energy sources.
An infographic showing how a solar panel converts energy into usable electricity.

Solar Arrays Can Be Installed in Various Locations

Solar energy is versatile and can be utilized across various industries. For instance, rural solar farms generate electricity for large areas and communities, while residential rooftop panels and solar-powered electric charging points can provide energy for individuals. Solar power is an easily accessible energy source that makes it easier to supply electricity to rural communities.

Solar Energy is Safe

While renewable energy is the future, some forms of clean power are better than others. Solar power is one of the safest renewables available because it doesn’t emit any dangerous toxins or leak harmful substances. In contrast, biomass energy is a renewable source as it uses natural plant material; however, the combustion process causes substantial air pollution. Therefore, it’s essential to do your research to understand which energy sources are the most sustainable.

Solar Energy Generates Affordable Electricity

Between 2004 and 2015, renewable energy investments increased by 600%.

What was once an expensive sustainable energy option is now the cheapest electricity source in history. As climate change became a reality, the demand for clean energy rose. Consequently, more people started investing in renewable energy, and the price dropped accordingly. In fact, between 2004 and 2015, renewable energy investments increased by 600%. Moreover, in Canada, the current cost of solar power is approximately $3.01/watt – but this figure depends on geographical location, the current market and the time of year.

Furthermore, solar power is a reliable way to safeguard your future energy prices. As hazardous fossil fuels are running out, the cost of electricity is rising. Solar energy is a way to lower future energy bills and limit your reliance on the national grid.

Solar Panel Energy Could Improve Human Health

In a 2013 study, researchers found that air pollutants may account for approximately 200,000 premature deaths per year, in the United States.

Air, water and soil pollution are responsible for thousands of premature deaths. The more corporations take responsibility for their environmental impact and switch to renewable energy sources, the more we can reduce pollution. The energy sector is currently responsible for 73.2% of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, in a 2013 study, researchers found that air pollutants may account for approximately 200,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. They reported that 52,000 of these deaths were associated with electricity generation, pointing to the dangers of pollution. Therefore, green energy production is key to improving global health and the wellbeing of our planet.

Final Thoughts

Solar energy production is paving the way toward a healthier future. Investments in renewable energy have risen dramatically over the years, and the sector itself grew by 45% in 2020 alone. However, it’s essential to keep this momentum going if we are to reach net-zero by 2050. Therefore, if you’re considering investing in solar power, there are many options available to you, including installing solar panels for your home or business or investing in utility projects and stocks. Now that you know how solar panels work, it’s clear that solar PV is paving the way to a cleaner energy future.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How does solar energy work?

Solar energy uses the photovoltaic effect to convert sunlight into usable power. Inside a solar panel, thin sheets of semiconducting material, such as silicone direct the electrons. The PV cells then absorb photons – particles in the sun’s energy – creating an electrical current by moving the electrons around. It is essential to install an inverter because solar power systems generate direct current instead of an alternating current that households rely on. Moreover, if a solar array generates more electricity than a household needs, it can be stored in a solar battery or sold back to the grid.

 

Why should you switch to green energy?

Switching to green energy, such as wind or solar power, is essential to reducing climate change. According to Our World In Data, the transport, electricity and heat sectors contribute to 73.2% of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, by transitioning to renewable energy, pollution will reduce, human health will improve, and the dependence on finite fossil fuels will lower. Lastly, although solar power was once an exclusive energy option for high-earning individuals, it has become one of the cheapest electricity sources in history. The lowering cost of solar equipment means that solar power is a  viable option for more communities.

 

How long do solar panels last?

The lifecycle of a solar panel is between 25 – 30 years and, in some cases, up to 50 years. The longevity of solar panels means they are less likely to need repairs or replacements. Consequently, this reduces emissions associated with manufacturing spare parts or additional units.

 

Is solar energy right for me?

If you’re considering investing in solar panels for your home or business, there are a few things to consider before you commit. Firstly, think about your available space. On average, you will need between 10 to 24 solar modules to power an entire home, so it’s essential to determine if this is possible before investing. Secondly, your goals need to match your project. If you’re keen to reduce your carbon footprint and decrease grid dependence, installing solar panels is an excellent option. Solar panels supply you with a clean energy source and supplement your energy use, lowering your electricity bills. Investing in solar stocks and solar projects is another way to join the solar revolution if installing a solar system on your property is not a viable option.

 

Do solar panels work when it’s dark?

A solar panel needs sunlight to generate electricity; however, it can still power your home through the night through a solar battery. Solar storage systems are a relatively new innovation, but one that has revolutionized solar power systems. Previously, these renewable energy systems only worked during daylight hours, which had its obvious limitations. However, with the addition of a solar storage battery, you can store any solar panel energy for nighttime use or during those cold Canadian winters.