How is Solar Energy Produced? Here's The Easy Explanation

Solar energy picture clouds and sky

Have you ever wondered "How is solar energy produced?" but been too overwhelmed by the complex jargon to makes heads or tails of it? If so, you're not alone. Solar energy is a pretty complicated topic, but understanding it can be the first step in saving both money and the environment. To help you out, here is an accurate and understandable overview of the topic.

How is solar energy produced?

sun and solar panels

Although there are several different paths to getting energy from sunlight, the photovoltaic effect is the most important to learn about if you want to understand solar panels. The short version is that moving around electrons in the right way creates energy, which can then be turned into usable electricity.

The slightly longer version is that sunlight can react with the silicone in your solar panels to shoot out an electron. This results in an electron with some extra energy and a collector that wants an electron to fill it.

Since there are many of these reactions happening at the same time, there are plenty of electrons generating energy which will then fill those collectors. When an electron settles into openings in the collectors, we can take that extra energy, which we then turn into usable electricity via an inverter. Of course different solar panels have varying efficiency ratings which produce more or less energy depending on the panels.

Are there different kinds of solar panels?

polycrystalline solar panel

Although all solar panels are photovoltaic, there are actually two distinct types: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. The former is made of single-crystal silicon and the latter is made of many different fragments of silicon combined together. A convenient analogy is to think of monocrystalline panels as a traditional wood panel and polycrystalline panels as particle board.

Monocrystalline panels are more expensive, but boast greater efficiency and tend to be considered as more aesthetically pleasing. Whereas polycrystalline panels appear as slightly blue, monocrystalline panels are black.

The choice between the two often comes down to how much you value initial purchase price versus efficiency in the long run. Monocrystalline panels may cost you more upfront, but may save you more than the price difference in the long run. On the other hand, if you don't care that much about the aesthetics or a potentially small decrease in overall efficiency, then the cheaper initial investment of polycrystalline may be worth it.

(Go solar with SunPowers Monocrystalline panels for $0 out of pocket!)

How do inverters turn sunlight into usable energy?

light bulbs hanging in a line

Immediately after the solar panels produce electricity, it's in DC form. Unfortunately, DC electricity isn't compatible with modern technology, so it will need to be converted to AC before you proceed. This is where the inverter comes in.

The inverter is generally placed on the outside of your building, between the panels and your circuit breaker. DC enters and is promptly converted to 120-volt AC, at which point it can be easily introduced into your home.

How are solar panels mounted?

If you're worried about whether your roof can support solar panels, then worry no more. Solar panels are designed to fit just about any roof, stay mounted through all but the harshest of weather hazards, and cause minimal long-term impact.

The actual mounting process will depend largely on exactly what your roof is made of. For most non-metal roofs, holes will need to be made through the roof and into the rafters. For metal roofs, clamps are often used to anchor the panels to the seams.

Furthermore, the hole-making process will change depending on what kind of non-metal material your roof is made of. Wood shingles are often drilled directly through, whereas clay tiles are usually removed and then individually modified to make room for the mounting bolts.

If you plan on replacing your roof in the future, then that will still be possible if you have solar panels installed. You may need qualified contractors to safely remove and replace the panels, but getting solar panels installed absolutely does not prevent the possibility of replacing your roof in the future.

How does net metering work?

Utility power meter

You may have heard of homeowners with solar panels being able to sell their excess electricity back to the local utility company. This is the rather common and simply called net metering. To understand net metering, it's important to first look at where the electricity goes after it enters your house.

If you have a battery hooked up to your solar system, then whatever electricity that is not being immediately used by appliances can be stored until the battery is full. That battery can then be used to power your home at night, when your solar panels obviously won't be supplying electricity.

However, it is far more common to not use a battery. Instead, your solar panels may be hooked up to the utility company's electrical lines, allowing electricity to flow both ways. When your solar panels aren't producing enough to cover your needs, such as during the night, cloudy days, or particularly high periods of energy usage, you can still get electricity from the utility company. Conversely, when you are generating more energy than you currently need, you can send all the excess to the utility company, where it will essentially accumulate as credit.

What are some other types of solar technology?

other types of solar technology

In addition to standard solar panels, there several other ways to harness the power of the sun to power your home.

Cadmium telluride solar panels are essentially regular solar panels that use elements other than silicon. They aren't popular yet because they are relatively inefficient in their current form, but their future does look promising.

Copper gallium indium diselenide panels have the opposite problem, being quite efficient, but very expensive to manufacture. If advances in the future did bring down their prices enough to be a viable competitor, then they may be the ideal option for buyers that need the absolute best in efficiency and are willing to pay a high sum for it.

Organic photovoltaic cells rely on an organic membrane to accomplish the transfer of energy, but they are still far off from being viable. Not only are they relatively inefficient, but they only last a short time, demanding frequent replacements and maintenance, resulting in exceptionally low cost effectiveness.

Domestic solar water heaters are one of the most viable options, effectively making a battery out of a water tank. Since water is very good for holding heat, it can also you to convert and store up a large amount of solar energy to be used later. As long as the tank is sufficiently insulated, very little of that heat will be lost as waste.

What should you do?

Ultimately, whether solar panels are the right choice for your home will come down to your specific circumstances. Carefully consider the following criteria before proceeding.

  • Do you want to buy, finance or lease your panels?

  • How much efficiency do you expect in the long run?

  • Do you live in an area that gets enough sun to make the purchase worthwhile?

  • Are you planning on replacing your roof in the immediate future?

  • Is there an alternative form of solar power that appeals to you more?

If solar panels are the right choice, then you'll want to get in touch with us for a free quote. We service the San Joaquin Valley, Stockton and surrounding areas. We can also answer questions if you just need a quote. Once you've got a handle on what sort of setup might be best for your building's conditions, you can begin to make the necessary arrangements. If you have any questions, please comment below.