olar energy has been around for a long time and is becoming more and more popular. Increasing affordability is driving its use even further, making solar power a perfect alternative to traditional energy sources with negative consequences in terms of pollution.
Ever wondered how solar works? Time to find out!
Despite solar panels being a regular part of our everyday lives, they are actually backed by advanced engineering and sophisticated technology. Let’s break it down to see how solar energy works.
What components does a solar power system consist of?
Before we get into how solar power works to convert sunlight into energy, let’s figure out what a solar installation is made up of.
First of all, let’s look at the panel. It consists of a series of solar cells (or photovoltaic cells) that are arranged in a grid, from 32 to 96 within one panel. These cells are made of semi-conductive materials, mostly silicon, which is valued for its cost-effectiveness, high energy efficiency, and corrosion resistance.
Solar panels are typically manufactured by covering an ultra-thin silicon layer with a protective glass and then sandwiching this between aluminum frames. It helps protect the sensitive layer of semiconductor material against contamination while also providing a rigid structure that can support the weight of an array.
There are monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. Monocrystalline panels are cut from a single crystal of silicon and have higher efficiency rates, while polycrystalline panels are manufactured using several crystals, which makes them a more affordable yet less efficient alternative.
Another essential part of a solar system is an inverter, an electronic device that converts direct current (DC) produced by the panels to alternating current (AC) that is usable by homes and businesses.
Racking systems are used to hold a solar array on any surface like your roof or ground. Rooftop solutions are often cheaper because they take advantage of the roof's existing support. Ground-mounted options are much easier to access, which means you can maintain them quickly without worrying about safety.
Both rooftop and ground-mounted racking is typically made of aluminum and stainless steel.
Solar battery storage (optional)
Your solar power units and batteries can be connected to create a “hybrid system” which will let you store energy produced by the solar panels and use it later when the sun isn't up. The most widely used battery types for solar energy storage are lead-acid or lithium-ion.
Now let's go through each step of harnessing solar energy.
Step 1: Solar panels collect sunlight
The key to success in solar power production is ensuring that panels produce as much electricity as possible during the times that they receive full sunlight. This is why you'll often find them installed on rooftops or open spaces with no nearby obstructions.
When the light hits a solar cell, electrons from silicon atoms are released and start moving freely within a solar panel. The negatively-charged electrons are then pulled to the positively-charged side generating an electric current, this phenomenon is known as the “photovoltaic effect”. Next, the current is harnessed by the wiring connected to the panel and used to produce electricity.
Step 2: Solar inverter converts DC to AC
Solar panels produce electricity in the form of direct current (DC), which means it flows in one direction. However, most home appliances need alternating current (AC) electricity, which periodically changes direction and magnitude. Thus, electricity generated by a solar panel needs to be converted from direct current to alternating current, and this is what a solar inverter does.
Micro vs. string inverters for solar panels
These devices may be of two types: string inverters and microinverters. String inverters usually mean there is a single device for the entire solar power installation, while microinverters are used as separate inverters for each solar panel. String inverters are generally cheaper and well-suited for areas with unobstructed sunlight, while several independent microinverters are a more flexible and reliable option.
Step 3: Switchboard does power routing
Solar panels aren’t normally connected to domestic appliances directly. The generated AC electricity is transmitted to a panel board, which distributes energy around your home and provides power for devices.
When you're not using all of your solar power, you can use a switchboard to export excess energy to a local grid and get credits to your bill. That way, you avoid paying too much for the electricity and have an easier time managing it later on.
Plus, you can attach to your switchboard special monitoring devices allowing you to view more details on energy consumption, which can help optimize solar energy usage over time.
Step 4: Solar meter records how solar energy works daily
Next, your utility company has to measure your electricity consumption. However, standard electricity meters are not meant for measuring solar energy usage, as they only run in one direction from your property to the utility company.
So after installing solar, you’ll need a bi-directional meter displaying the amount of electricity you consume from the grid as well as electricity that runs into the grid from your solar system. This will allow you to measure net solar energy consumption and get paid for whatever excess electricity you send to the grid.
Step 5: Solar battery collects extra energy
Even though a battery for grid-tied systems is optional, it is definitely something that you should consider for your solar installation.
A residential solar-plus-storage system powers your home by charging batteries during the day and then discharging power to meet demand. It can also guarantee access to electricity even during periods of cloudy weather or outages from the grid.
Solar batteries are classified into AC-coupled and DC-coupled types. The difference here is that a DC battery uses the same solar inverter to convert DC energy it stores into AC energy and an AC-coupled has its own built-in solar inverter so that it can directly convert DC power into AC.
All that's left is to check how solar works for your area!
We looked into how solar works in practice. Now that you know its ins and outs, it might be easier for you to decide whether you’d like to have your own solar system working to power your household. Solar panels are now becoming more affordable than ever before, so there is no reason not to install one on your roof or in your backyard.
But first, you have to find out how solar works for your area and if your location is suitable for solar panels, this can be done by using a solar panel calculator. Once you know how much power you need, you can choose which panel size will suit your needs and work best for your location.