Whether you’ve been using a solar energy system for several years or you’re considering transitioning to solar power, understanding the science behind a solar system can help you navigate your options more successfully. While you probably already understand the basics—solar panels fundamentally convert sunlight into electricity—you may not understand some of the finer details. In this post, we’ll simplify the science so you can gain a better understanding of how a solar energy system works.
The Fundamental Stages of Solar Energy
To generate and transmit electricity, a solar energy system follows these key steps:
- As sunlight hits a solar panel, an electrical field is generated.
- The electricity generated by the field flows to the edge of the panel, where it’s conveyed via a conductive wire.
- The conductive wire delivers electricity to an inverter, where it’s converted from DC to AC electricity, the most commonly used form of electricity.
- Another wire delivers the AC electricity from the inverter to an electrical panel that distributes power throughout the building.
- Any electricity that’s generated but not used flows through utility meters to be used on the larger electrical grid. This backflow can allow you to take advantage of energy credits.
How Solar Panels Generate Electricity
While the steps above explain how a solar energy system works, they don’t explain why it works. On the most basic level, solar panels are made up of many small photovoltaic (PV) cells. These cells—most frequently made out of silicon—convert sunlight into electricity by maintaining an electrical imbalance that drives other processes.
When sunlight hits the PV cells, the cells absorb light photons to free electrons that can then move around the cells. An imbalanced electrical field forces these freed electrons to move toward conductive metal in the cells. These metal plates transfer the electrons to conductive wire that conveys the electricity to the inverter. After being converted from DC to AC, the electrical current becomes suitable for everyday applications.
Types of Photovoltaic Cells
While there are alternatives, silicon PV cells have become the industry standard for high-performance, reliable solar panels. Not all silicon solar cells are created equal, however. Let’s explore the three most common types of silicon PV cells.
Monocrystalline silicon cells are created out of a single silicon block in wafer formats. The cells are cut into individual wafers that are then affixed to a solar panel. While monocrystalline cells are the most efficient, they require more work to create, so they’re generally more expensive. At the same time, they provide a sleek black finish that looks good if you’re installing panels in plain sight.
Rather than being formed out of a single block of silicon, polycrystalline cells are created by melting several silicon crystals. These cells are then fused together onto a solar panel. While they’re less efficient than monocrystalline cells, they’re more affordable and have a dark blue tint.
Amorphous silicon cells are used in flexible solar panels as a thin film. Attached to a substrate such as glass, plastic, or metal, amorphous cells are ideal for applications that require something other than a rigid panel.
Connecticut’s Solar Solution Experts
If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind solar energy or you want to schedule a free project proposal, contact the energy efficiency experts at Verogy today. No matter your needs, we’ll work with you to deliver a customized solar energy solution that’s built to serve you for years to come.