How Solar Panels & the System Are Designed and Function?

published on 05 October 2022
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“Once you got a solar panel on a roof, energy is free. Once we convert our entire electricity grid to green and renewable energy, cost of living goes down.”

Elizabeth May

While solar panels seem complicated, the actual way that they convert solar energy to electrical energy that we can use is anything but. Solar panels are actually made up of many smaller units called photovoltaic (PV) cells or, as most people refer to them, solar cells. PV cells are composed of a semiconductor material, which is typically silicon based. Now semiconductor simply means that it can conduct electricity better than an insulator can, yet not as well as a stronger conductor like metal can. Silicon is one of the most abundant elements on earth.

How Do Solar Panels Convert Solar Energy to Electrical Energy

Now, in a solar cell, crystalline silicon is layered between two highly conductive layers. Silicon atoms are connected to these neighboring atoms with strong bonds. Now within the silicon cells are different silicon types, each with specific properties and abilities. Because of those differences, they can create both positive and negative charges. The photons from the sun’s rays hit the silicon and travel on the top layers of the cell, forming an external circuit. Each specific silicon cell on the panel creates about a half volt of electricity and in a panel of 12 (PV) cells that could create enough energy to charge a typical cellphone. Now multiply these panels many times over and you could create enough electricity to power an entire home.

Industrial Strength Glass on Solar Panels-juvq9

How Does Residential Grid Tied System Electric System Work?

With a grid tied system, there are often many misconceptions. Among them is the idea that a battery must be installed with the system and, in most cases, that’s unnecessary. In most modern systems, a battery is unnecessary, because the utility company acts as a giant battery. That means that during peak hours, your system will purposefully create more power than is necessary and send it off to the grid through the power lines connected to your home. During the evening, when the solar system isn’t generating energy, you will draw from that same grid and take back the excess energy your home created.

A few pieces of equipment that help make the entire system work are the inverter and meter. Both connect to your home and the grid. The sun will hit the solar panels and the inverter will then change the current from D/C to A/C power. A/C current powers your home to power and the various electronics and appliances within it. The principal goal of any solar system on your roof is to generate not only what you need for your current usage today, but also what you might need in the future. With the right solar installation, you no longer need to keep the house at uncomfortable temperatures during summer and winter months just to reduce your energy bill. In fact, even if you don’t have a need for all the energy you produce, most utilities will offer you a credit for an excess production that makes it to the grid from your home. No one invests in a home solar project to scrimp on the energy they use. Homeowners want to enjoy the benefits their home offers and plan for any additional future use.

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Could the Entire Planet Run on Solar Power?

The sun is the most powerful force in our entire solar system and creates enough energy to power everything we need multiple times over. Hypothetically then we should be able to power all our electricity needs from the sun, right? Well, not so fast. Besides any political factors that might stifle complete renewable solar energy, there are additional factors. One of these factors is the strong economic benefits that many businesses and countries like Russia have from maintaining a dependance on fossil fuels like coal and oil. For instance, even here in the United States there’s a powerful well funded oil lobby that has significant sway in congressional decisions. This lobbying group spends millions each year helping to elect politicians sympathetic to their long term financial interest. And this is not a knock on politicians, because who really likes them anyway? Many of these politicians are well intentioned enough and help prop up these aging business models because people that they represent work in these industries and any transition away from the money they generate would create a hardship for their constituents. No politician wants to take good paying jobs away from the people who vote for them. That is not a recipe for a long life in politics. 

Because of the political factors, you will often see significant renewable energy support from senators in states that do not have a large base of constituents dependent upon the fossil fuel industry. Conversely, the politicians from states like Texas, Alaska or West Virginia, for example, have a vested interest in protecting the citizens of their state and the jobs that puts food on their families’ table. So no matter how dire a situation some may feel about climate change, it’s not always fair to paint with a broad brush, especially when you consider how you might feel if your friends or family members suffered immense financial hardship because of changing energy policies. One significant benefit of solar is that it is a fast-growing segment and is responsible for millions of jobs across the US from research and sales all the way to construction workers and installers.

Another reason it is not reasonable to expect worldwide solar adoption soon is because of the physical and logistical barriers to a fully solar powered planet. One obvious reason is that sunlight is unevenly distributed around the globe. Places like Norway and Alaska have towns in their northern regions that can go weeks or months with no sunlight at all. Without another way to generate electricity, those areas would become uninhabitable during winter. To power those areas with the sun, electricity would need to be sent hundreds or thousands of miles from sunny areas to ones that are not receiving adequate sunlight to power their needs. 

Clouds and overcast weather certainly reduce the effectiveness of solar panels to generate the electricity they’re capable of producing. That is why homes that choose to go off the grid completely have large battery storage units to save that previously generated solar for a rainy day. Houses that stay on the grid (which I recommend) have the ability of utilizing the electric companies’ existing grid as a giant battery, producing excess electricity when it’s sunny and drawing on it when needed during nighttime and inclement weather.

The last major limitation is one of technology. Presently, even the most advanced solar panels researchers have constructed convert less than 50% of sunlight into usable electricity. These research grade panels exist mostly as experiments and concepts, rather than commercially available systems. The commercial systems available to homeowners are about half as efficient as those, converting a maximum of 25% of sunlight to energy.

Despite all these limitations, if funding, land and resources were available tomorrow, current technology could indeed power the entire world. It would take hundreds of thousands of square miles in an area like a desert. To put that in perspective, the Sahara Desert itself is over 3 million square miles. Recently, countries like China have invested millions in research and implementation of massive floating solar farms in the ocean that are creating enough energy to power cities.

There are hundreds of millions of people living around the globe that currently do not have access to stable energy sources and, for those, solar is the easiest, cheapest, and best solution for reliable electricity. In the US, despite the inconveniences we often face because of the aging energy grid, we’re blessed with a reliable source of abundant energy. And every house that makes the choice to transition to solar helps make that grid stronger by taking pressure off it during times of peak usage.

Every day, more and more people are making the switch to solar and are effectively creating mini power plants to power not only themselves but their community, all because of the ability to stay connected to the grid and lend power to the utility companies. The best part is that the extra energy your system creates returns to you as a credit.

Let's discuss your energy goals and find out if solar makes sense for you with a short virtual meeting.


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  • Save up to 50% on your energy bills
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  • Get clean renewable energy
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Let's talk about going solar!

Jon Nelsen | Solar Consultant


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