Everything you ever wanted to know about solar energy and solar panels

It’s a beautifully clean and simple process. The sun’s light travels through space to the earth, where solar panels absorb the packets of energy that the sunlight contains and converts them into electricity.

Producing no emissions and with no cost other than the solar system itself, solar is an inexhaustible supply of free natural energy that’s beginning to rival other forms of energy production as solar panels are becoming more affordable.

Here we take a look at what solar energy is, the types of solar panels on the market and the process that enables them to convert solar energy into usable electricity.

What is solar energy?

The sun is like a giant nuclear reactor which shoots out tiny packets of energy known as photons. These photons travel the 93 million miles to earth, where they are experienced as both light and heat from the sun.

Solar power production is the conversion of the energy packets contained in sunlight into electricity, using either of two methods; concentrated solar power, using lenses and mirrors, or photovoltaics (PV), where sunlight is converted into an electric current via the photovoltaic effect. Put simply, when the photons hit a solar cell, they knock electrons loose from their atoms and these are captured by the solar cell in an electrical circuit.

What are solar panels?

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are collections of solar cells which are made of silicon. These solar cells have a positive and a negative layer, which together create an electrical field.

There are three main types of solar panels on the market;

  • Monocrystalline panels – the most efficient of the three types where solar cells are created by taking slices from larger silicon crystals.
  • Polycrystalline panels – here the silicon is poured into moulds rather than being cut from crystals.
  • Thin film panels – a layer of silicon is sprayed onto a surface (this makes it cheaper to produce but also less efficient than the other two types).

In Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline solar panels, silicon wafers are infused with impurities to create a semiconductor. This converts sunlight into electric current which then travels via electrical contacts from one solar cell to the next.

In Thin Film solar panels, a thin layer of flexible material such as glass, stainless steel or plastic has a series of layers applied to it to form the solar cell, with an oxide layer forming the electrical contact.

How solar panels evolved

The first solar collector was invented by 18th century Swiss scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure, who created a solar oven able to reach temperatures of 110 degrees celsius.

However, the real step forward came in 1839 when French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect when he exposed an electrode in solution to sunlight and it generated an electrical current.

By 1953, solar cells were no longer experimental and the world’s first silicon solar cell was created by Bell Laboratories. From that moment on, advancements in photovoltaics saw the technology improve at a steady pace as energy efficiency increased and production costs slowly decreased.

How do solar panels work?

Solar panels work at an atomic level. When photons from the sun hit a solar cell, they jar electrons loose from their atoms. As these electrons move around randomly, the cell’s positive and negative electrical conductors capture them and guide them to move in the same direction on a circuit, resulting in an electrical current being formed.

Multiple solar cells make up a solar panel and multiple solar panels can be wired together to form a solar array; the more being used, the more energy that is generated.

The drawback with this is that the energy being created is direct current (DC) electricity (where the electrons flow in one direction around a circuit). To be useful electricity, it needs to be converted into alternating current (AC) electricity (where the electrons periodically reverse direction) and that’s where an inverter, the other key component of a solar panel, comes in.

An inverter turns the DC electricity into useable 240-volt AC electricity and also provides ground fault protection (earthing) for the solar system. An inverter can also provide a range of useful statistics for monitoring the system, including the voltage and current on AC and DC circuits and the amount of energy that is being produced.

While central inverters have been the traditional inverter used since the beginning of solar, the invention of micro-inverters provided the industry with another big step forward. Rather than one inverter for the whole solar system, micro-inverters are small inverters which optimise each solar panel individually, helping to improve the overall performance and efficiency of the entire solar array.

Solar panels today can provide up to 22% energy efficiency and last as long as 25 years, losing only 0.5% efficiency per year. With production costs now cheaper than they’ve ever been, solar power is becoming an economically viable energy source that’s within the reach of the average household.

So if you’ve been thinking about switching to solar, be sure to contact the team of experts at Platinum Solar for a free consultation.

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