How Solar Panels Work
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
There’s a lot of interest surrounding solar power, with many experts predicting it will become the world’s #1 source of electricity by 2050. But how do solar panels actually work? Can they really save customers money? And are there any downsides that get left out of all the marketing hype?
Keep reading to find out.
How Do Solar Panels Make Electricity?
When certain semiconductor materials (like silicon) are exposed to sunlight, they produce an electrical charge. Known as the “photovoltaic effect,” this unusual quirk of physics was first discovered in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel. But it took more than a century before the world’s first commercially viable photovoltaic cell came into being.
What Is A Photovoltaic Cell?
Usually made of silicon, photovoltaic (PV) cells are the black/blue squares you often see in handheld solar-powered calculators.
Combining these squares in batches of 32 to 90 cells gives you a full-sized solar panel. Combine two or more PV panels together in a series, and you have a solar array.
How Do Photovoltaic Cells Work?
Each PV cell contains two thin layers of silicon – one of which is negatively charged, while the other has a positive charge. Together, they create an electric field. And when sunlight hits the cell, it frees up electrons that then travel along the electric field to create a current. But before customers can use this solar power, the electrical current must go through one more step.
Understanding Direct Current Vs Alternating Current
Solar panels generate direct (DC) electrical current. But most residential and commercial appliances require alternating (AC) current. To make this energy usable, most PV systems come with a solar inverter/microinverter that converts DC power to AC electricity.
On-Site Solar Storage (Optional But Increasingly Popular)
Most residential and commercial solar installations are connected to the power grid. Doing so ensures that the PV system owners have reliable access to nighttime power when their panels are not actively capturing energy. And in utility markets that offer incentive programs like net metering, grid-tied PV installations can also feed extra solar electricity into the power grid – earning utility credits for the PV system owners.
However, it’s also possible to install on-site batteries that capture and store excess solar electricity generated during the day. This allows customers to further reduce grid reliance and save even more money.
Do You Really Save Money With Solar Panels?
The short answer is yes. Solar panels generate their own power from free sunshine. And thus, installing PV technology allows customers to greatly offset monthly utility bills. Better still, going solar protects customers from future rate increases. Although utility providers will likely raise their prices in the future, sunshine remains free forever.
Because of these benefits, solar PV is a technology that pays for itself in an average of 7 – 12 years, depending on:
The quality of the PV system. Tier 1 panels installed by experienced professionals can deliver more solar electricity per square meter than lower-quality panels installed by amateurs.
The price of grid electricity. Customers who live in more expensive utility markets have more to gain by switching to cheaper renewable energy alternatives like solar power.
The cost of going solar. The more expensive the installation, the longer it’ll take to pay for itself. But it’s worth noting that almost no one pays full price for PV systems. Thanks to incentive programs like net metering and the Federal Investment Tax Credit, it’s possible to dramatically reduce the total cost of going solar. And this, in turn, can increase the ROI and shorten the payback periods of your customers’ renewable energy investments.
It’s also possible to remove the utility company from the equation entirely. With a large PV system and sufficient battery capacity, customers can generate and store enough clean electricity to cover 100% of their energy needs. Although the upfront cost is higher, this strategy means never having to pay another utility bill again. Users are also protected from blackouts and other grid failures.
What Are The Main Disadvantages Of Solar Energy?
No technology is perfect. And solar certainly isn’t an exception. Below are some of the downsides of installing PV panels:
1. Upfront Cost
The initial cost of buying and installing a PV system can be high, ranging from $10,000 — $30,000 for a residential system. If installing batteries as well, the cost becomes higher still. However, solar panel prices continue falling every year. And there are many financing options that now let customers go solar for $0 upfront.
Solar panels don’t work at night, which is why PV systems need to be grid-connected or configured with on-site storage. They also don’t generate as much power on rainy or overcast days.
3. Real Estate
Solar panels take up a lot of space, making them unsuitable for certain types of properties. Customers either need a large, sturdy roof or plenty of land to make going solar a viable option. However, there is a growing movement to build more community solar gardens in which area residents collectively finance larger PV systems – usually on the outskirts of the city.
Once installed, solar is a green technology that converts free sunshine into clean electricity. And this makes it infinitely more sustainable than grid power generated from fossil fuel.
However, plenty of fossil fuel goes into producing and transporting PV panels – meaning they do have a sizable carbon footprint. Fortunately, it only takes 4 years for the clean electricity generated from modern solar panels to offset the dirty energy used to create them. Once they reach this energy payback period, all additional electricity is technically carbon-free.
Is Solar Right For Your Customers?
The ability to save money is the primary reason most customers go solar. Those savings start the moment they install panels. And they accumulate over time until the total savings far exceed the upfront cost of going solar.
That going solar also delivers carbon savings and property value increases simply makes the decision to install PV panels even easier. This is especially true given that local, state and federal agencies are often eager to help subsidize clean energy investments through a range of generous incentives.
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