How Do Solar Panels Actually Work?
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke.
For the vast majority of people, the answer to the question “how does a solar panel work?” is: solar panels are magic. Technology happens and it generates electricity.
Most people think about smartphones the same way. How do they work? Most of the population has no clue. They’re just happy that smartphones do work (at least most of the time).
If you’re someone that isn’t satisfied with the magic answer, this article will tell you exactly how a solar panel works.
Let’s start with what you can see. The solar array is a grouping of solar modules, or solar panels (the terms panels and modules are used interchangeably in most cases), that sits on top of your roof. The modules are made up of a series of solar cells. This is where the magic happens.
Solar cells are made of two different silicon layers. The first layer is infused with a chemical that gives the silicon a negative charge, while the second layer gets infused with a chemical that gives the silicon a positive charge. These two oppositely charged layers of silicon create an electric field. When sunlight hits the solar cell, electrons are kicked off the negatively charged silicon and flow through the cell, thereby generating electricity
Both silicon layers in the solar cell are sandwiched together with two conductive metal plates. The panels and cells are then wired to transport the electricity.
When sunlight hits the solar cell, electrons are kicked off the negatively charged silicon and flow through the conductive metal plates to create electricity. The wires then transport this electricity to an inverter and eventually into your home (or back to the power grid).
The electricity created by solar cells isn’t actually usable in your home, at least not in its current state. Solar arrays use inverters to convert the electricity that comes from the solar cells into the type of electricity that our homes and appliances use. Learn more about inverters here.
Each solar cell only puts out about half a volt of electricity on its own. This is why the cells are strung together into panels and then grouped together on top of your roof. From there, it’s pretty simple math to make sure you have enough panels on your roof to handle all your electricity needs.
One of the best things about solar energy systems is the only moving parts in a solar array are the electrons. This is why solar cells and solar panels can last for decades without any maintenance or upkeep. They work for hours on end day, in and day out, without you having to make any fixes. Most panels come with 20-25 year warranties, but will actually last much longer. The truth is most panels will never stop working, they’ll just have a steady decline in productivity over time.
It’s interesting, the thing that makes solar panels so great (the sun) is actually the same thing that reduces the efficiency of solar panels with time. Over the course of many years, the sun will actually make the glass on solar panels less translucent, reducing the amount of electricity that the solar generates.
The only other thing that changes with solar panels is their flexibility. Once again this happens over the course of many years. The bus bars that hold the solar panels together can corrode and cause damage to the solar cells inside. This doesn’t mean your system will stop working entirely, it just means the electricity production will be reduced.
That said, replacing solar panels is usually pretty easy. If you need panels replaced or any service on an existing system, we’d be happy to take a look and see if we can help.
Can you install solar yourself?
The short answer is yes. It is possible to install solar yourself, but we generally recommend against DIY installations (unless you’re a licensed electrician). While solar panels and their installation are not that complicated, a solar installation deals with high voltages that are definitely dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Flashing and sealing the roof after mounting and racking the array is another key piece that should be handled by a professional. It happens all too often that DIY installations end up having roof leaks and other roofing issues along the way.
If you want your solar system to last 40+ years like we know it can, we recommend finding a professional solar installer to do the job for you. Professional installers also have access to some of the best equipment and will be on the front lines when pioneering new and innovative tools to install solar.
If you’d like to power your home with solar, click here to learn more.
Are solar panels bad for the environment?
People have claimed that building solar panels is actually more harmful to the environment than any benefit they produce. This is simply not true.
There are absolutely no caustic materials used in solar panel production. Manufacturing the panels does cause some carbon emissions just due to the manufacturing process and the fact that many of the manufacturers aren’t using renewable energy to power their plants (ironically). The good news is, throughout its lifetime, a solar panel will certainly offset any carbon emitted into the atmosphere during its production.
With the solar industry still young, there isn’t yet a secondary market for used solar panels. Since solar panels will last for a very long time despite the reduction in efficiency, we foresee an opportunity for used solar panels to be purchased and installed at discounted rates for people that need that secondary market. Particularly in areas where energy is unavailable or extremely expensive, used solar panels could be life-changing. There are many non-profits and corporations that are looking to make solar energy more accessible to underserved populations and Complete Solar hopes to be at the forefront of such a noble cause.