It’s no secret—we can’t keep using fossil fuels forever. Even if you don’t believe in the negative environmental effects they cause or the principals of climate change (which several scientists will here debate with you), there’s no denying that, at the very least, the Earth’s supply of coal and oil will eventually run out.
That’s because fossil fuels are a non-renewable energy source. This means that the earth only contains a finite supply of this material, and it won’t be generating more anytime soon. The age of the fossil fuels will come to an end—the only thing we can change is how hard that impact hits us.
And so, the turn towards renewable and clean sources of energy has become increasingly widespread. Renewable sources of electricity include hydropower, wind power, and geothermal energy. Perhaps the most popular alternative energy source, however, is that of solar power.
This is because solar power can be implemented easily in a wonderfully diverse amount of ways through the mounting and attaching of solar panels. While most everyone knows what solar panels do, however, very few actually know how solar panels work.
What Are Solar Panels?
Before we jump into how solar panels work, let’s first cover the basics: what exactly are solar panels and what do they do?
Solar panels are made up of photovoltaic cells that absorb the light from the sun’s rays. This energy is then converted into electricity that can be used to power homes, businesses, and more.
Solar panels are exactly as they sound—flat panel surfaces that can be mounted outside to capture the sun’s rays. These panels are thin and customizable, able to come in a variety of sizes and forms. They are adaptable, so you can mount them on a house, RV, or even use as a portable charging device.
So, How Do Solar Panels Work?
1. Gathering Energy
As mentioned above, solar panels are made up of photovoltaic cells (PV cells). These cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Hence, the name “photovoltaic”: photons being converted into voltage. So, whenever your solar panels are hit with the sun’s rays, the PV cells inside them get to work by converting this energy into direct current (DC) electricity.
There is much more that goes into it than simply generating the electricity, though. DC electricity cannot directly power your home. It instead must be further converted into an adaptable form.
2. Converting Electricity
And so we come to the next stage of how solar panels work: converting the electricity generated by them into a usable form, alternating current (AC) electricity.
This is done through an inverter. Inverters are placed on the backs of each solar panel. These inverters are responsible for taking that DC electricity and converting it into AC electricity, which is actually usable. You are now just about ready to start using solar energy to start powering up your home and other devices.
3. Powering Your Home and Devices
This next step differentiates a bit depending on exactly what kind of solar panels you’re using and what you’re using them to power. We’ll first start off with the most traditional solar panel options: solar panels mounted onto a house or business meant to generate electricity for the whole complex.
Once energy has been gathered and converted, first into DC and then into AC electricity, it must then be processed by a net meter. As the electricity flows into your house through a series of cables and wires, it first passes through a net meter.
The purpose of the net meter is to determine how much power your home is drawing from the power grid and likewise measure how much energy you are putting back into it through the electricity generated by the solar panels. Once it has processed these amounts, the energy will flow directly into your house and you will be using solar energy processed right above your very head!
This final step is a bit different if you’re using solar panels for something other than powering a home or other building. If you’re using it to help power an RV, for instance, there is no net meter required because you aren’t actively drawing from the grid.
The same applies to portable solar panel chargers. In these cases, your small electronic devices are receiving electricity from only one output: the charger. So, no net meters are used, and the electricity is instead pumped straight into these products and vehicles.
Image via Pexels
One worry that many have when switching to solar energy as an alternative energy source relates to environmental and climate factors: what if you don’t live in a sunny state? Or even if you do, what if there’s a cloudy day? Will your power just shut off?
This is a reasonable concern to think about, but there genuinely is nothing to worry about.
First and foremost, just because the day may be overcast doesn’t mean your solar panels just suddenly stop gathering energy—they just do it at a slower and lesser rate, usually supplying around 10-25% of the usual amount of electricity. Think of it as how when it’s cloudy you can still get a sunburn, there’s just a lower chance of it.
“Okay, but I can’t power my whole house off of just 10% of the electricity I usually have,” you might be thinking. And you’re right, which is why your house will still be connected to the grid. That’s why solar panels attached to a building has to pass through a net meter, which moderates how much electricity you use from the grid versus how much you produce.
So, if your solar panels aren’t able to quite cover all your power needs, never fear—the grid’s got you covered. On the other hand, it is definitely not unheard of for some houses to generate more electricity than they use, resulting in the power companies actually paying them for their surplus energy.
Solar Panel Products
In going over how solar panels work, we briefly touched on some of their functionalities, but now let’s dive a little deeper into their full range of capabilities.
As we mentioned above, solar panels are commonly mounted on houses and other businesses in order to provide for the building’s electricity needs. These panels are typically mounted to the roofs of buildings.
Placement of these panels is absolutely critical in order to generate as much exposure to the sun as possible and therefore absorb the most energy. Placement can be determined by a variety of factors, such as compass direction and any structures that may obscure the sun or cast shade during certain times of the day.
You can cover your entire roof with panels, or you can add just a few to take the edge off your electric bill. Installing these types of solar panels can be a bit pricey, but they pay off in the long run.
Solar panels can also be mounted to a variety of transportation and recreational vehicles. Solar panels for RVs are becoming especially popular. This is because RVs not only use gas for driving, but also electricity when staying in place.
Certain campgrounds provide hook up options for your RV, so that it can pull energy from there. If you’re out in the middle of the woods, however, you’ll be relying on your RV’s generator, praying that it has enough power to last you. Solar panels, then, make a great addition to your RV, as they provide you with a way of using electricity without being hooked up or draining your generator.
Solar panels are also popular for use with boats and even some other, smaller vehicles.
There is also a wide variety of portable solar panels available for easy use. This includes many editions of solar panel chargers.
While these come in several designs, one of the most common is a collection of two or three small panels surrounded by fabric that can be folded in on one another to create a portable pack. These can generally be strung along the outside of the backpack, ideal for hikers and backpackers.
They typically charge small electronics such as phones, cameras, and other USB-compatible devices.
Are Solar Panels the Way of the Future?
We think so! With the ever-depleting supply of fossil fuels and the increasing awareness of alternative, renewable, and sustainable energy sources, the outlook of solar panels becoming more commonly used over the next several years seems promising.
Just a small increase is not enough, though. There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to overhauling our energy system. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and many don’t want to do it, but we have to start sometime. Better now than later.