As more people are getting on board with alternative energy and the climate crisis, solar energy is becoming more of a household term. Although many people have heard of solar energy, very few people actually understand how it is produced.
In short, solar energy is produced whenever sunlight strikes the solar panels. The solar panels, through photovoltaic transformation, turn the solar power from the sunlight into usable electricity that is suitable for your home or put back into the grid.
Although this is a brief overview of how solar energy is produced, the process is much more technical than that. For this reason, we’re going to take a closer look at exactly how solar energy is produced from home solar systems. Let’s get started.
How Solar Energy Is Produced
Solar energy is produced in two steps: sunlight is converted into energy and the energy is converted into usable electricity.
Step 1: Panels Convert Sunlight Into Energy
Before learning about step 1, you have to understand the materials within the solar panels; these materials allow the solar panels to capture sunlight and create solar energy. Most solar panels today are made from either monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon. That silicon is protected in a metal panel frame that is cased with glass.
Since the silicon is covered by glass, sunlight can reach the thin layer of silicon. Whenever sunlight hits the silicon on the top layer of the solar panel, electrons are knocked off the silicon atoms. Electrons, which are negatively charged, are then attracted to one side of the silicon cell. As a result, an electronic current is created and captured using the wiring within the solar panel.
This process of the electrons being knocked free from the sunlight is called a photovoltaic effect. This photovoltaic effect, or PV, is the basis of solar energy generated from solar panels. Because of the photovoltaic effect, more energy is produced whenever more sunlight hits the silicon since more sunlight results in more electrons.
This explains why states like California or Florida benefit from solar panels more than states like Washington or Michigan; they are exposed to more sunlight, which results in more electrons being knocked off the silicon atom.
Step 2: Energy Is Turned Into Usable Electricity
Converting sunlight into energy is really neat and interesting, but it is useless unless it is turned into usable electricity. Thus, Step 2 involves turning the energy into electricity that can be used in your household or put back into the grid.
After the loose electrons are collected within the panels, direct current, or DC, is created. DC is not usable electricity. The type of current needed to do things like power a device, turn on a light, or use your coffee pot requires alternating current, or AC. So, the DC electricity from the electron current has to be converted into AC electricity for use.
Solar panels convert DC into AC using inverters, such as string inverters, microinverters, or power optimizers. No matter the type of inverter used, each one turns DC electricity into AC electricity, which allows it to be usable. After the electricity passes through the inverter, it is changed into AC electricity and flows to your electric panel and meter. From there, it is dispersed throughout your home or into the electric grid for use.
What Happens To Solar Energy That Goes To The Grid?
As previously mentioned, once solar energy is converted into usable electricity, it is either used in your home or sent to the electric grid. Obviously, it is rather straightforward what happens to the electricity once it is used in your home, but what exactly happens when it goes to the grid? In other words, how does solar energy that goes to the grid benefit you?
Whenever the electricity is produced, it goes to your meter. The meter then measures how much energy you consume versus how much you put out. Any leftover electricity is sent to the grid. Luckily, the meter tracks exactly how much excess you have given back to the grid.
Depending on where you live, your local utility should reimburse you for any excess electricity created since the meter tracks your intake and production. This allows the solar panel to be both environmentally friendly, while also saving you a bit of money in terms of energy use.
Once again, solar energy is produced when sunlight hits silicon, creating energy, which is then converted into AC current for usable electricity. After that, electricity can be used in your home or sent to the grid.
It is important to note that silicon is not the only material that is used in solar panels. Cadmium telluride, copper gallium indium diselenide, and organic photovoltaic cells are all different types of solar panels that utilize different materials. However, these materials are used less frequently either because they are less efficient or more costly than silicon.