Electricity: it may seem mysterious since it’s invisible to most of the senses (except touch), but you can still get the gist of how solar panels work without being a science expert. A standard solar array is a relatively simple unit, consisting of solar panels, a power inverter, and some electrical wiring. It’s the actual conversion of light into electricity that’s both amazing and complex.
#1 How the Solar Array Works
First, visualize the complete system: light travels from the sun and strikes the solar array on your roof. A reaction takes place that creates an electrical current (direct current or DC electricity). The newly created DC current travels through electrical wiring from the panel to the solar power inverter (usually located in the garage). It’s the inverter that makes solar energy usable by converting DC current into AC current (that’s what your lights, hair-dryer, washing machine, and everything else in your home runs on). Once it passes the inverter, your 100% solar-panel produced AC electricity is available for all your home appliances or, if you don’t need the power, it’s passed on to the electrical grid.
#2 How Solar Panels Create Electricity
While we aren’t going to get into the hard science here (think Einstein and Quantum Physics), we’ll cover the basics: first, solar energy from the sun strikes the solar panel. Each panel is composed of smaller units called solar cells, which vary in number depending on the size and type of solar panel. A solar cell is a relatively thin wafer, about the circumference of a donut, and composed of several layers of semi-conducting material, like silicon. If you look closely at a solar panel you can usually see the individual solar cells.
As sunlight strikes the cell, it excites the negatively-charged electrons in the material. Each cell is designed to facilitate electron-flow in one direction, creating a direct (DC) current through the panel. The solar cells in the panel are linked together, which means the more cells you have the greater the power capacity of the panel. The total solar system output is determined by the number of solar panels linked together in the system.
While the inner-workings of the semiconducting material in solar cells is a little mysterious, this should be enough information to understand how the panels function and make up a complete home solar array. If you’d like to learn more, I’d suggest doing a little research on the “photoelectric effect” and the semi-conducting materials found in solar cells.