When it comes to powering anything and everything from handheld calculators to full-sized airplanes, look to the horizon. Solar power systems have become increasingly popular sources of home energy in the U.S., and across the globe, solar panels are more of a requirement than a suggestion. It's time to get acquainted with the process of using sunlight to generate electricity – the future of clean fuel has never looked brighter.

How does solar energy work?

Solar power is generated by converting light particles, or photons, into electricity. To capture these photons, large, flat solar panels are installed on rooftops, which offer access to direct sunlight. Solar panels are made up of many smaller photovoltaic cells that contain semi-conductive elements, like silicon. When sunlight hits these solar panels, the incoming photons disrupt the normal structure of the silicon atoms and force their electrons to move. This starts the flow of electricity. (Need a 90 second refresher on how electricity actually works? We'll be here.)

Energy flows from the solar panels on your roof to an electronic device called a power inverter. This inverter converts the electricity from the solar cells into a current that's more compatible with your home appliances.

What happens when the sun sets?

Even after installing solar panels, most homes remain connected to the regional power grid, so they don't lose electricity when the sun goes down. However, on especially sunny days, your solar panels may produce more electricity than you need.

Any excess electricity your home produces is fed back into the power lines, providing clean energy for the community and reducing power plant production and pollution. But your eco-friendly efforts won't go unrewarded. Net utility meters keep track of how much extra solar electricity you make each day, and you'll get credit toward your power bill for all of the clean energy you contribute.

If you want to cut ties with your power company, you can invest in a battery backup system and live "off the grid." Although this option is expensive, you'll be able to save up your extra solar electricity for rainy days, instead of paying an energy provider for backup power.

Solar offers many ways to save

Statistics suggest that in especially sunny states, investing in solar energy can reduce your electric bill by $100 each month. To determine how much you can save by going solar, consider the cost of conventional power in your region, the yearly climate and the incentives offered in your home state.

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