How Does Solar Power Work? (A Dummy’s Guide)

New to solar? Start here...

Disclosure: Some posts contain affiliate links, which earn us a commission if you make a purchase through them.

An Introduction to Solar Power

Solar cells revolutionized the energy industry and truly changed the course of energy production. However, solar power isn’t as young as you might think.

Solar power’s beginning dates back to 7th century B.C. The earliest example of using solar power is the magnifying glass. Through the sun’s energy, magnifying glasses became an easy and simple way to start fires.

Other examples include the emergence of sunrooms to capture the warmth provided by sunlight. Both Native Americans and the Romans were known to utilize this type of solar energy.

These are traditional examples of solar power. The energy solar power provides for us in modern times is much different.

Before we dive into answering “How does solar power work?” We must trace the origins back to the invention of modern-day solar power and ask:

Who discovered solar power and when was solar power invented?

Who Invented Solar Power?

We can credit the invention of solar power technology to French physicist Edmond Becquerel. In 1839, he made a discovery that would revolutionize the world.

However, he would not be the single entity to bring solar power to full effect.

Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while studying metal electrodes. He noted that these cells could produce more electricity when they were exposed to light.

Several years later, in 1876, William Adams and Richard Day applied this new principle that had been discovered to selenium. They deduced that it could produce electricity when exposed to light.

This was the first major step forward to the solar power technology that we see across the world today.

Finally, 50 years later, in 1883, an American inventor by the name of Charles Fritz combined the collective knowledge of many and produced the first working selenium solar cell.

This became the most significant precursor to how we interact with solar energy as we know it today.

Solar Energy As We Know It Today

Solar energy has drastically changed since the days of Charles Frit.

Nowadays, silicone or thin-film solar technology is typically used in modern solar panels.

It’s the cleanest and most prevalent renewable resource and is accessible to everyone. It can generate energy for large corporations and individual homes alike.

In the U.S, there are more than 71 gigawatts of solar installed.

That’s enough energy to power more than 13.5 million homes.

In total, there are more than two million individual solar installations in the U.S.

How Does Solar Power Work?

Solar technology has allowed us to harness the energy produced by the sun and convert into usable power, typically in the form of electricity.

In the past, solar technology typically used large crystals that were made from silicon.

Silicon produces an electrical current when struck by light, making this an ideal conductor for generating solar power.

Silicon does this because of the electrons found within the material react to sunlight and move. Other materials’ electrons typically jiggle in place to produce heat, but the increased movement of silicone electrons has the potential to generate much more power.

But in modern times, many newer materials are being used.

The materials, dubbed “thin-film” solar technology have become increasingly popular because of their flexibility and cost-effective crystals.

However, they still don’t compare to silicon in terms of turning light into electricity.

Regardless of which material you may find in use, the process for generating electricity remains the same.

According to Scientific American, within a crystal, bonds between silicon atoms are made of electrons that are shared between all of the atoms within a crystal.

Once the light is absorbed, one of the electrons within a bond can freely move around more than when it was bound.

Because that electron can move more freely within the crystal, it eventually will create a current. This increased current is then harnessed.

Where Does Solar Power Come From?

Of course, solar power comes from the sun. Sort of.

The sun provides us with solar energy, not solar power.

Here’s the difference…

Solar Energy

George Washington University’s Solar Institute states

Solar energy is broadly defined as the total energy that the sun radiates through visible light and other unseeable electromagnetic waves. Solar energy systems refer to any technology that converts the sun’s energy into another form of energy …

What this means is that solar energy hasn’t been harnessed and we can’t use it, it’s merely what the sun is providing us to use.

Solar Power vs Solar Energy: What’s The Difference?

SOLAR ENERGY can be used for more than just electricity, such as through heating and cooling. SOLAR POWER generally refers to the conversation of the sun’s energy into electricity.

In other words, solar power falls under a subset of solar energy.

Typically, you’ll find that solar power is harnessed via solar panels for most industrial and home uses.

So, how do solar panels work?

Explaining Solar Panels

According to Live Science, a solar panel “works by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity.”  

In laymen’s terms, this means that the panel’s photovoltaic cells are converting the sunlight’s energy into electricity.

Photovoltaic cells, or just solar cells, are made from the silicone or thin-flex materials that transform sunlight into electricity.

The panel then converts this energy into direct current electricity.

If you know anything about electricity, you’ll know that you need alternating current electricity to power anything that plugs into a residential wall socket.

If the need for alternating current electricity arises, panels will use an inverter to convert direct current to alternating.

This system is standard any time you see homes or residential areas using solar panels for energy.

Now, let’s break down each part of the solar panels.

The Photovoltaic Cells

The source of solar power originates from these solar power cells.

These cells are made up of one positive and one negative film of silicon and are placed under a thin slice of glass. Photons from the sunlight then invade these cells and get rid of electrons of the silicon.

Once this happens, electrons start moving and the current is formed.

Solar panels are wired together to form a solar photovoltaic ray.

This ray then gathers the current and produced direct current and sends it off to the inverter to convert into use a usable alternating current.  

The Inverter

In residential uses, the inverter is typically mounted to the exterior sidewall of the home and maybe near the electrical main or sub-panels. They emit a slight noise when functioning properly.

The inverter is connected directly to a dedicated circuit breaker in the electrical panel to ensure that once the electricity is made available, it’s able to be put to immediate use.

The inverter, along with an electricity production meter and electricity net meter is connected.

This makes it possible for the inverter to power the solar electric system itself before powering other functions.

Roof Systems

A roof system is the most common form of a solar system that you’ll see from solar panels.

The solar panels are placed on the roof and will ideally have no shade on them at any time and face toward the south for maximum sunlight potential.

These systems are, by far, the best way to maximize the sunlight being provided to your home. However, any shading around the house may cause a massive decrease in power gain formed solar powers.

According to Northwest Wind and Solar, solar panels have 36 cells within each panel. If just one of those cells becomes shaded, power production would be reduced by more than half.

This makes it incredibly important for roof systems to maximize the sunlight that your solar panels could receive.

More Stories
The Best Solar Inverters For RV’s (2020 Ultimate Guide)