How Does Solar Electricity Work?

Information verified correct on October 26th, 2016

Find out how solar electricity works before you install a system in your home.

A solar electricity system uses sunlight to power your home so you can save money on your electricity bill and reduce your carbon footprint. This is what you need to know to understand how solar electricity works.

How does solar electricity work?

A photovoltaic (PV) solar system generates electricity from the sun. It’s like owning a power station on the roof of your home, your business – or even your car.

PV solar electricity works by converting the sun’s light to power. It’s all thanks to a chemical phenomenon called the photovoltaic effect, which is where the photovoltaic solar panels take their name from.

You can store power in batteries or you can even sell the electricity you don’t use to the power companies by feeding it back to the main power grid — or both. A PV solar electricity system has these components.

Solar parts and process

  1. A group of PV solar panels collect sunlight and provide an electrical current to a solar inverter.
  2. The solar inverter converts the electricity to something you can use in your home.
  3. Electricity can be then provided to the home.
  4. Excess electricity can be stored in batteries or sold back to the power grid.

Solar cells and panels

  • PV solar cell. A photovoltaic solar cell generates electricity when it’s exposed to the sun’s light. These cells are commonly made from multiple layers of positively and negatively charged silicone. Photon particles from the sun react with the silicon layers to create an electric charge.
  • PV solar panel. PV solar cells are grouped together to form a solar panel, sometimes called a solar module.  Approximately 60 cells make a panel. Solar panels can be grouped in a series or a parallel formation for efficient energy production.
  • PV solar array. A group of solar panels is called a solar array. The amount of electricity the solar array can generate depends on the number and configuration of the solar panels and environmental factors like the amount of sunlight each of the cells can absorb in a day.
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The solar inverter

The solar inverter is the other key component of a PV solar electricity system. The solar inverter must convert DC electricity generated by your PV cells to AC electricity, which is the electrical current that powers everyone’s home. The solar inverter plays a safety role too. It ensures your system operates at a safe power output and automatically shuts off if there’s grid maintenance, for example.

Solar configuration

There are a few different ways you can set up your PV solar electricity system. You can link the inverter to provide power directly to your home, you can choose to feed excesses power back to the grid, or you can store excess power in solar batteries to use later.

Solar batteries

Electricity from the inverter can power your home and you can store excess electricity in batteries. Battery storage can be purchased at an additional cost to your PV solar system and can ensure your lights stay on if you run out of solar power.

The solar meter

A solar meter monitors your electricity output and consumption. The majority of solar meter systems monitor your net electricity production. This is the electricity output after you’ve supplied your home with power. Any excess electricity you don’t use can be sold to the power companies and fed back to the main grid. The solar electricity meter also provides you with electricity if your electricity consumption is greater than your solar production, like at night time for example.

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Solar water heating

Solar heating technology is different to photovoltaic solar panels. Solar water heating systems are more efficient than PV solar systems.

A solar heating system is a great way to cut down on the amount of electricity you use in your home. A solar heating system can take up to a quarter of the space on your roof but can reduce your electricity consumption by up to a third in some cases.

Solar electricity can sound complicated, but once you get past the jargon it isn’t that difficult to understand the basics of this clean and sustainable source of power.

Shahedul Islam

Shahedul is the publishing assistant for He's Internet savvy and loves to learn new things about finance and technology. He spends most of his time learning about the wonderful world of the internet.

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