Solar 101: What is Solar Energy and How Does it Work?

The sun is the most prominent and abundant source of energy received by our planet. It only makes sense, then, to tap into this ever-radiant natural resource to power our lives and provide energy into our homes and businesses. So, what is solar power and how can we convert the energy from the sun into electricity? Let’s shine some light on the fascinating concept of solar power. 

But first… What is Energy?

If you think back to your basic elementary school science class, you may recall that energy comes in different forms, from motion to light to heat. Solar energy comes from the sun’s light. The sun emits photons, which are waves of light energy that travel to the Earth. It takes just over 8 minutes for photons, or light, from the sun to travel to the Earth.

What is Solar Power?

Solar power is the fastest growing source of power in the world. It is the ability to harness energy from photons released from the sun and convert them into electricity. The way this is done is by creating solar cells that rest in solar panels. The more solar cells you have within a solar panel, the more solar energy can be harnessed. 

How do Solar Panels Work?

The solar cells that comprise solar panels are more specifically called photovoltaic cells. These cells contain a positive charge and a negative charge, similar to a battery, creating an electric field. The solar panels face the sky to capture the sun’s light. This captured light energy sets an electric current into motion by loosening electrons within the solar cells. The electric current generated from the flow of electrons is then converted into electricity using an inverter. 

What is the purpose of an inverter?

The inverter is needed because the solar cell generates “direct current” or DC electricity. That is, the energy absorbed by light from the sun in a solar panel sets electrons into motion in a single direction around a circuit. However, all of our appliances within our homes are “alternating current” or AC electricity. In AC electricity, electrons move in alternating directions, or back and forth, through the use of a coil of wire spinning next to a magnet. Our homes use AC electricity because it is generally a cheaper way to transmit energy over longer distances. So, how do we reconcile the use of these two different forms of electricity? Through an inverter! An inverter converts DC electricity from the solar panel into AC electricity, which makes it usable and can now be distributed throughout your home or business to operate appliances or other machinery in the same way that they would normally be operated through power generated by an electric utility company. 

What about nighttime or cloudy days?

The beauty of solar panels is that energy can be harnessed and saved, literally, for a rainy day. That means that your solar panel still has electricity generated from previous sunny days and can continue to provide power to your home or business throughout the night and on days that there is less sunlight. No energy is gone to waste!

How much do solar panels cost?

To install a solar panel at home, the cost really depends on the type of home you have, the roof material, and the type of solar panel. Better quality panels are a bit pricier, but have the advantage of working very efficiently and including warranties, which can result in savings in the long-run. The average price is typically based per watt, which is the unit of electrical power. Overall, for a homeowner, this cost ranges from just under $3 to under $4 per watt of power. And as mentioned earlier, as the fastest growing source of energy in the U.S. today, this cost is continuing to decrease over time.

What are the other advantages of using solar power?

Besides being popular as a renewable and clean source of energy, there are several other advantages of going solar. For homeowners who decide to switch to solar systems, you may be eligible for a federal tax credit. Solar power also increases the value of your property. Net metering is another way to save hundreds of dollars in your utility bill. This means that when your solar panels generate more electricity than you have actually used, you’re only billed for the amount of energy you’ve used, or the “net” energy. You can get a credit against the electricity you use on days that are cloudy, or at nighttime, because of the excess energy you generate from your solar panels, which actually goes back into the electrical grid to help power the neighborhood. It’s a win-win!