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How Does Solar Power Work?

Updated for 2023

What is Solar Power?

Solar power is produced when energy from the sun is converted into either electric or thermal power. Energy sourced from the sun is also called solar energy, which is what creates solar power. Both electric and thermal power is generated through solar panels also known as PV (photovoltaic) panels, which can be seen on rooftops and across acres of rural land. When solar energy is produced, it can be utilized in producing electricity or reserving power in batteries. Solar power can also be generated using mirrors as an alternative to typical, more commonly used solar panels. Because solar power comes from the sun, solar energy and utilizing solar power are unlimited and renewable.

Is Home Solar Safe?

Despite concerns as to whether installing home solar systems is safe or not, there is currently no evidence that home solar is harmful. Solar energy is considered a healthier alternative to fossil fuels, substituting electrical sources that increase pollution that can accelerate the risk of lung cancer. Although solar panels contain traces of electromagnetic radiation that are associated with cancer, frequencies are too low to consider them a threat. Even extended time around home solar panels is ultimately very safe.

How is Solar Power Stored?

Solar power can be stored in various ways, such as inverter batteries, grid operators, and electricity utilities. However, there are also unconventional, creative ways of storing solar power, such as hydrogen, salt, or flow batteries. In a household using solar panels, an inverter is commonly used for solar energy storage. When the sun meets the panels, the solar energy flows to the inverter to supply power to the home. Without storage, extra unused solar power is sold directly into the grid. However, when solar storage is installed, extra unused solar power is stored in a battery instead of being sold into the grid. Because the sun isn’t available to create solar energy around the clock, solar power storage can extend further power usage without resorting to other electrical sources once the sun sets. 

The Four Types of Solar Panels

The most predominant types of solar panels are thin-film, PERC, monocrystalline, and polycrystalline. All four of these types of solar panels are regularly recommended to homeowners and landowners of varying circumstances and budgets. As solar technology evolves, the efficiency of solar panels increases, as scientists find better ways of absorbing and using valuable energy from the sun’s rays. Although each of these types of solar panels strives for the same purpose of converting solar energy into electricity, each is composed of different layers, appearances, sizes, colors, etc.

Thin-film solar panels are by far the least expensive form of solar panels; however, they are also the least efficient compared to their thicker, more conventional counterparts. Nonetheless, the thin film is expected to become more efficient over time as improvements progress, even more so than silicone panels. Thin-film panels also have the shortest lifespan, lasting anywhere between 10-20 years. Unsurprisingly, thin-film solar panels are extremely lightweight and thin—every layer is 1 micron thick. 

PERC (passivated emitter and rear contact/cell) solar panels differ from other conventional silicon solar panels due to having an additional reflective layer, hence the “rear contact” portion of its name. This rear layer reduces recombination, ultimately preventing the cells from underperforming or worsening. PERC solar panels are typically more efficient, producing more energy across the same area compared to other types of solar panels—this also means needing fewer panels to produce a desired supply of energy. PERC solar panels typically last up to 25 years.

Monocrystalline, also called “mono solar panels” are regularly noted as the best solar panels on the market, reaching peaks in efficiency and recommended liberally for those interested in installing solar panel systems. The prefix, “mono” (meaning “one”) is due to each cell being composed of one silicon crystal. Unlike their other counterparts, monocrystalline panels have a pyramid impression that gives them a larger surface—this allows the panel itself to absorb high amounts of energy from the sun due to its larger surface. The panel’s unique pattern also has traces of phosphorus, which establishes an electrical field. Unlike PERC solar panels, monocrystalline panels have silicone—more importantly, silicon nitride. Moreover, silicon nitride throughout these panels escalates the amount of absorption, therefore more energy. Unlike any other main type of solar panel, mono solar panels last a whopping 40 or more years. In rare cases, mono solar panels may last only 25 years. 

Polycrystalline solar panels, also known as either “poly panels” or “multi-crystalline panels,” are like their monocrystalline counterparts, as both contain crystalline silicon. However, the “poly” prefix is due to these solar panels including multiple silicon crystals, each being melded together. Although these types of panels contain more silicon crystals, they are ultimately less efficient in comparison to monocrystalline panels, which usually causes consumers to resort to purchasing panels. Poly panels are greatly durable but have shorter lifespans, lasting roughly 25 years, like PERC solar panels. Once this period is up, the crystals within the solar panels begin to separate. The upside to its lower efficiency is that it’s less expensive. 

Powering a Residential Home on Solar

Installing solar for a residential home has increased in popularity as solar technology has improved and access to installation and solar panels is easier than ever. Homeowners will opt to install solar panels on their roofs, in turn, the direct current is dispersed to an inverter and a battery, whereas the alternating current flows to the power grid and various home appliances. Many experts and individuals recommend investing in a home solar system to avoid excessive electrical bills and living self-sufficient while contributing to a renewable source that helps the environment. Solar panels are easy to purchase – they’re found at hardware stores, solar equipment suppliers, and online retailers. 

Is Solar Energy on the Power Grid?

Solar energy and the power grid can work together, which allows homeowners with an installed solar panel system to avoid paying electrical companies. As discussed prior, excess energy that is not immediately used is either stored in a homeowner’s or landowner’s battery storage or dispersed into the power grid. However, both the grid and solar energy operate differently due to their models—as solar technology progresses, we may see an increase in the two working smoothly together as well as a cleaner planet. As of now, the two are not as compatible as expected.

Environmental Benefits of Solar Panels 

Solar is a renewable energy source, meaning it is inexhaustible and never depletes after continuous use. Solar energy is also a substitute for fossil fuels, which are notoriously known to contribute to the worsening of the environment and carry far more disadvantages compared to advantages. Although solar panels take intense exertion to manufacture, their lifespans can be upwards of 20—50 years. Solar energy’s most crucial role in the environment is decreasing greenhouse gas emissions which, in turn, helps ecosystems flourish. The pollution that is eliminated by using solar as an alternative also has negative effects on agriculture, making solar an important component for protecting our food sources. As solar power works to reduce air pollution and protect the environment, it also contributes to reducing the risk of cancer, respiratory diseases, and heart disease.