How Do Solar Panels Work?
Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight directly into electricity, with no harmful emissions. Compared to a big, industrial power plant burning coal dug up from the ground, it seems like magic – but how does it work?
The basic unit of a solar panel is a solar cell, which usually consists of one or two layers of silicon-based semiconductor wafers. When struck by the photons in sunlight, electrons in the silicon wafers are activated and knocked loose. The cell has positively and negatively charged sides (a cathode and an anode), which causes the loose electrons to move in a steady electrical
current between them. This process, discovered in the 19th century, is called the "photovoltaic effect" because it uses photons to produce voltage – a difference in electrical potential between two points that we harness to power everything from light bulbs to smartphones to cars.
Dozens of these PV cells are packaged together into solar modules, which in turn are packaged into solar panels that are mounted on a rooftop and arranged to maximize their hours of exposure to direct sunlight. Because the electricity generated by all those solar cells is direct current (DC), it is then sent to an inverter that transforms the power into the same alternating current (AC) used by the appliances in your home and the local utility electricity distribution grid.
Grid Integration and Home Storage Technologies
This compatibility with the grid is important, because for a variety of reasons most solar homes only use solar to provide a portion of their electricity needs, relying on local utility supplies for backup when the sun isn't shining or if extra power is needed. The electricity produced by these panels is integrated seamlessly into your existing electricity service, so you can go solar without having to worry about your lights dimming every time a cloud passes overhead.
There’s another, complementary way to ensure that you always have power when you need it: the addition of home battery systems that can store your solar energy for later use. While these systems are currently quite expensive, they are starting to make economic sense for a growing number of businesses and homeowners – and, with companies like Tesla rolling out consumer-oriented battery storage products, it’s only a matter of time before they become more widespread.
What About Maintenance?
While solar may seem like a complex, space-age technology – and it is! – it’s also very easy to maintain. Rain is generally sufficient to keep solar panels free from dust and grime, although you might have to hose them off every now and then if you live in a dry part of the country. And, since solar panels have no moving parts, you don’t have to worry about wear and tear over time.
In fact, because of their operational simplicity and extensive track record, most solar panels come with warranties that guarantee reliable operation for decades. And, just in case anything ever does go wrong, oftentimes solar companies – including the installation partners Mosaic works with – offer operations and maintenance service agreements to give you extra peace of mind.
Going Solar Works
At the end of the day, all you really need to know about solar PV systems is that they work seamlessly with your existing home electricity supply – the only difference you’ll notice is a lower monthly utility bill!* And, as technologies like battery storage systems are added, you can become even smarter about how and when you use your solar power. We’ll discuss the economics of home solar and the ease of financing these systems in subsequent sections – or you can just click here to get started with a quick, free solar quote from Mosaic!
*"Your individual results/Actual savings may vary based on electrical usage, future utility rates, weather, shading, design and placement of the installation, and other uncontrollable factors."