If you have ever wondered how solar cells actually generate electricity, this article provides an introduction to the basic principles of photovoltaic technology.
To decide whether or not to install a residential solar energy system, there are a few concepts you need to grasp before you start placing solar modules on the roof of your home. Here are the fundamental principles that allow solar cells to generate electricity.
You don’t need an advanced degree in physics or mathematics to understand the basic principles of how solar cells, also known as photovoltaic cells, convert sunlight into an electrical current. The details of how photovoltaic cells operate are certainly complex, but you can begin to demystify solar cell technology if you define a few basic terms first.
Basic definition of photovoltaic
Generally speaking, “photo” refers to light energy, not a picture; “voltaic” refers to voltage, which describes the difference in potential energy “stored” between two points in an electrical circuit. Batteries are a great example you can use to understand the concept of voltage since they have a positive end and a negative end clearly marked.
Higher voltage means that a battery can support the energy needed to power a larger electrical system. As a quick example, think of the difference between a car battery and a small AAA battery used to power a TV remote control. A car battery requires a much larger voltage to turn on your vehicle. Without a battery with the proper voltage, your car simply will not start.
That said, “photovoltaic” refers to the ability to convert light energy into voltage, which then generates an electrical current when connected to a circuit. Technically speaking, a solar cell consists of a few different types of photovoltaic materials, but for the sake of simplicity, photovoltaic cells will be referred to as solar cells. The next step is to understand a few fundamental principles of sunlight.
Likewise, you don’t need an advanced degree in astronomy to understand the properties of solar energy that power solar cells. Simply put, the sun is a star and generates an astronomical amount of energy, 95 percent of which is light energy, according to scientists. Note that not every star produces primarily light energy, which is one of the many reasons why the sun is key to all life on earth; some stars generate mostly radio waves.
Only a relatively small band of sunlight, known as the visible spectrum, is visible to the human eye. Nevertheless, all you have to do is place your hand on a black surface that has been exposed to direct sunlight to know that light produces much more energy — which generates heat — than we can see with the naked eye. Solar cells seek to capture as much of the sun’s light energy as possible to generate an electrical current you can use to power your home.
The way sunlight interacts with the Earth explains several concepts that you may take for granted. Heat transference has already been mentioned. However, the fact that the sky is blue relates directly to sunlight; scattered sunlight is what gives the sky its blue hue on a sunny day.
Clouds also reflect sunlight energy back into space, and similarly, the surface of the earth reflects sunlight energy. Energy from the sun is responsible for wind, weather patterns and seasons too. Solar power is merely the logical extension of the fact that much more of the sun’s energy is available to us than people can see. As such, sunlight is an infinite, renewable source of energy that solar cells harness to generate electricity.
How is sunlight converted to electricity?
Now that you understand the basic concepts you can gain a better understanding of how sunlight is converted to electricity. Solar cells, which are actually so small they can fit in the palm of your hand, consist of different photovoltaic materials. One side of the solar cell is a negatively charged material, and the other side is a positively charged material that “accepts” sunlight energy, converting it into voltage.
Note that a solar cell is not a battery, but the concept of voltage still applies. Batteries store electricity until the potential energy inside of them is no longer sufficient; solar cells produce an electrical current until sunlight decreases.
From a reliability standpoint, solar cells are a sound technology. Environmental factors affect how much power a solar cell produces, which is why it’s so important to consult with an expert solar energy system installer. When you connect several solar cells together, you create a solar module. You can then use these solar modules to build a large enough solar array to supply all of the clean, renewable power your home needs.
Overall, photovoltaic cells are very intricate, but this article provides the basic concepts you need to know to understand how solar cells convert sunlight to electricity. Armed with this knowledge, you can begin to make a sound decision on whether or not a solar energy system power is right for you.
To learn how solar energy can work for your home, visit www.rgsenergy.com for information and a free quote.