Photovoltaic Vs. Solar Panel (What’s The Difference)

While the ordinary layman may not know, there is a vast difference between a photovoltaic cell and solar panels. Photovoltaic cells make up the structure of a solar panel, but the two have very different functions for the entire solar array. 

Essentially photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into voltage. Then the solar panel takes that voltage and turns it into usable electricity. Photovoltaic cells are the part of the solar panel that reacts to the sun to create a positive and negative charge that creates a voltage that moves around the cell. The panel then forces this voltage into a wire, making it electricity we can use. 

Photovoltaic Vs. Solar Panels: Key Differences

  • The role they play in a solar array
  • How photovoltaic cells work
  • How solar panels work
  • The difference between thermal and photovoltaic solar power

Read on if you want to learn more about solar power and how it works.

Solar panels close up of the photovoltaic cells

What’s the difference between photovoltaic cells and solar panels?

To break it down into the simplest terms, photovoltaic cells are a part of solar panels. Solar panels have a lot of photovoltaic cells lined upon them to convert sunlight into voltage. The solar panels use the voltage generated by the photovoltaic cells and convert it into power.

Of course, this can become a lot more complicated practice. It only becomes more convoluted if you include the different types of solar power, such as thermal solar power instead of photovoltaic solar power, which is the main subject.

How Photovoltaic Cells Generate Voltage

Photovoltaic cells generate voltage by having a difference in electrons on their back and front. The front has a higher number of electrons, making it negative, while the back has fewer electrons, making it positive.

When sunlight hits the cell, it excites the electrons, causing them to circle the cell, creating voltage and current, the necessities for electricity. The electrons circulate while sunlight hits them, generating power for as long as they are in the sun. 

This current and voltage generation happens on a cellular level, meaning each cell generates a tiny amount of power. In addition to the small amount of power from each cell, photovoltaic cells can only capture about 11 to 15% of the sunlight’s energy. Solar arrays tend to make up for this by having a lot of photovoltaic cells.

However, if you’re going to buy solar panels for your house, keep in mind, they aren’t as efficient as advertised most of the time. 

Most of the problems with solar arrays are traced back to the photovoltaic cell’s inefficiency at capturing daylight. An array advertised to give off 10,000 volts might only give off 7,000 from weather conditions and how much of the array is in the sunlight during the day.

See also: What Are Solar Panels? (How They are Made)

How Solar Panels Work

Solar panels are the part of the solar array that gathers electricity and converts it into electricity. Solar panels are lined with photovoltaic cells arranged to face the sun.

When the cells generate voltage and current, the panels force this current into a wire that feeds into the batteries or directly into a converter. 

Large solar arrays are designed to rotate to face the sun, such as industrial power arrays or on solar farms. To get the most out of the solar array, it needs to face the sun all day long directly, so the photovoltaic cells are constantly excited, creating a current that the panel can feed into the power supply. 

However, most domestic solar arrays don’t have this capability, losing energy from the sun.

The Difference between Thermal Solar Power and Photovoltaic Solar Power

Thus far, we’ve been talking about photovoltaic solar power or converting sunlight directly into electricity. But solar power is more than just photovoltaic.

Solar power is about converting sunlight into usable energy, including heat. So thermal solar power uses heat generated from sunlight to power generators or used another way.

The most popular domestic use for thermal solar power is heating a house. Essentially, heat is gathered from an attic or a thermal solar array on the roof, and then a fan spreads the heated air into the place below.

It can significantly reduce energy costs during the spring and autumn, although the array typically doesn’t get warm enough during the winter. And an even simpler way to use thermal energy is to have large south-facing windows.

The windows capture the sunlight, heating your house, resulting in lower heating bills during winter. Just keep in mind those same windows will capture heat just as well during the summer, so if you live in a warm area, it may not be practical.

Thermal solar arrays can also heat water to support the water heating system in the house, either by feeding the water heater with water at a higher temperature or by pumping into a register, helping to heat the home with water heated from the sun.

Different Types of Solar Arrays

There is the photovoltaic solar array, which I discussed above. They consist of photovoltaic cells and solar panels and convert sunlight directly into electricity. They all come in a similar format; however domestic arrays are typically not as efficient as industrial arrays as they do not continually follow the sun throughout the day. 

Thermal solar arrays have several different formats depending on your needs. Domestic thermal solar arrays can heat houses, water, or even capture sunlight from windows. 

While they’re cheaper to set up than photovoltaic arrays, thermal arrays that heat water need regular maintenance, while thermal arrays that heat air only need care as needed (i.e., only if the fan that moves the air breaks down).

Industrial thermal solar arrays typically consist of many mirrors that concentrate sunlight onto a single point then use the concentrated sunlight to boil water, powering a turbine that generates electricity. 

These arrays have many moving parts and have to be adjusted to face the sun throughout the day, making them impractical for domestic use.


I hope you learned a little about solar power and its intricacies. Solar power involves using sunlight for energy, not just directly converting it into electricity. 

There are many kinds of solar arrays, from thermal to photovoltaic. The solar panels convert the voltage generated by the excited photovoltaic cells into electricity in the photovoltaic array. 

Solar power is unlimited clean energy that we should take advantage of to power our future, and understanding solar power and how to capture it is essential.


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Elliot has 20+ years of experience in renewable technology, from conservation to efficient living. His passion is to help others achieve independent off-grid living.

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