How solar panels generate power

Written by Saltanat Berdikeeva

Edited by Hannah Hillson

Last updated 04/08/2022

How solar panels generate power


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How do solar panels produce electricity?

The question many people have is: How does solar energy work? Unlike power from a wind turbine or even a power plant, P.V. solar panels don’t seem to have any moving parts — so how exactly is that energy being produced?

Solar panels capture energy from the sun and convert it into electricity and heat. Using silicon-based photovoltaic (P.V.) cells, solar energy generates both types of power. Multiple P.V. cells constitute a solar panel, and many solar panels are put together to create an array that typically covers rooftops or ground-mounted solar farms.

Commonly made of silicon, solar panels are held together by a metal frame and a glass casing. Silicon, the second most abundant element on earth after oxygen, is a useful semiconductor. That means it can conduct electricity in certain conditions.  

When particles of sunlight, called photons, reach the surface of the silicon of the solar panel, they reflect off the cell and get absorbed by the silicon. Electrons are freed from silicon atoms once the semiconductor takes in enough solar energy. The P.V. charge makes a direct current (D.C.), captured at the solar panel wiring. A device known as an inverter converts the D.C. power to alternating current (A.C.) — the electricity used for homes and businesses. After the solar energy turns from D.C. to A.C., it moves through the electrical panels, lights up your home, and powers your appliances.

Solar panels generate power only during the day. If sunlight can reach them, they continue to generate electricity even during cloudy or snowy conditions. 

If this seems a little too complicated, don’t worry! Our visualization breaks down everything into easy-to-understand sections — you won’t need to remember your physics or chemistry classes to understand. Check it out below:

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Rise of solar generation in the U.S.

Since 2010, solar energy has become increasingly popular in the U.S. In 2020, solar accounted for roughly 3% of electricity generation in the U.S. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects solar power to increase and constitute almost half of the new U.S. electric power generating capacity in 2022.

A nearly 90% drop in photovoltaic (P.V.) solar panel costs since 2010 has propelled solar as an important source of clean and renewable energy. It can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other harmful chemicals that contribute to climate change. Carbon opponents embrace solar energy to generate electricity without harming the environment.

P.V. solar panels are now widespread and accessible. With an estimated 97.2 gigawatts of solar power capacity in the U.S., there is sufficient energy to power 18 million American homes. Residential homeowners are increasingly placing panels on their roofs. Solar “farms” are taking shape all around the country. North America is also a growing market for floating solar panels installed on structures that float on top of a body of water. They are usually placed on a reservoir or a lake. According to the EIA, P.V. solar panels installed on an area the size of Lake Michigan could provide enough power for the entire U.S.

This is an exciting time for solar in the U.S. California is a national leader in solar generation, followed by Texas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. In 2021, solar power grew at the fastest rate in the U.S.

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