What Are Solar Panels? Complete Guide

The sun is one of the most abundant and constant sources of energy available to us, and one method of harnessing this powerful energy into a useable form is by using solar panels.

With this constant source of energy right above our heads, it makes sense that solar power is the best way to move toward a greener future and reduce our insatiable need for fossil fuels.

But what exactly are solar panels and how do they work?

Put simply, solar panels are a series of photovoltaic cells used to harness and convert the light from the sun and turn it into useable power for our electric needs.

I’ve been living off-grid for over a decade, using solar panels to provide for almost all my energy needs.

If you are considering doing the same, or simply want to decrease your reliance on the grid, it helps a lot to get informed about exactly what solar panels are and how they work before diving in to invest in a setup.

Luckily, you’ve come to the right place! In this article we’ll be covering the following, plus a lot more:

  • What solar panels are used for
  • How solar panels are made
  • How solar panels work

If you are looking at getting into the exciting world of taking control of your own power needs with the use of solar panels, this is a great place to start! Read on below to find out more.

What are Solar Panels Called?

Solar panels are most commonly called solar panels as they harness the power of the sun, which is referred to as “Sol” by astronomers.

Solar panels are also known as “photovoltaic” or PV panels by scientists, as they convert particles of energy called “photons” from the sun into useable electricity.

They are actually comprised of many smaller units called photovoltaic cells that are used to harness this energy, and all these cells connect together into a unified grid, collectively known as a solar panel.

What are Solar Panels?

The first photovoltaic cell was invented a surprisingly long time ago, in the early 1950s by Bell Labs.

Solar energy had been captured and harnessed in many ways before that, but only after the invention of the solar cell did use the sun’s energy to power electrical devices become a feasible reality.

Of course, these first iterations were rudimentary, to say the least, and their efficiency has expanded exponentially ever since, especially in recent decades.

A solar panel is, in essence, a very simple device, but one that can harness the inexhaustible resource of the sun cheaply, and effectively.

Using the built-in solar cells, a solar panel converts photons from the sun into electrons, which are then fed to a battery, which is used to store this energy.

Then, by using an inverter, we can harness this stored energy to power a great many devices.

The options are almost endless, as the more power you need, the more panels and batteries you can simply add accordingly.

The one downside to solar panels is, of course, the lack of power if the sun is not out due to weather, and the lack of charging at night.

This is why PV panels are being constantly improved to harness as much energy as possible, even in overcast conditions, and their efficiency is always steadily growing with the introduction of new technology.

Solar panel covering a roof (1)

Solar energy is a clean, renewable energy source

Solar power is arguably one of the cleanest energy sources available today, with an almost infinite supply. As long as there is sun, there will be power going into your solar setup.

Compared with the burning and mining of fossil fuels to create our current energy source, solar energy offers a hopeful path for the future of humankind’s energy demands.

Of course, as with almost any method of energy production, there are downsides, lack of sun being the biggest.

Additionally, fossil fuels and minerals are still used in the production of solar panels, plus the batteries that are needed to store solar power only last 10 years at most.

That said, solar panels are built to last — I am still using the first solar panel I purchased almost 14 years ago!

Plus, they are certainly better than the pollution and damage caused by burning fossil fuels.

What Are Solar Panels Used For?

Solar panels are used to harness and convert photons from the sun into useable electricity, which is then stored in a battery to be used as you need it.

As you can imagine, this results in an almost infinite variety of potential uses — as long as you have enough stored energy, you could potentially use them to power almost anything.

Most commonly, solar panels are used as a replacement or addition to traditional grid power in homes.

They can be used to power lights, appliances, and even for heating(with enough power), and your system can be tailored to as much power as you need.

Additionally, solar panels are also widely used for portable devices nowadays.

In our world of ever-growing technology and the constant need to charge our devices, portable solar is becoming a useful mechanism for charging indeed.

From small, foldable panels that slide into a backpack, to integrated solar panels that can be sewn into clothing or built into our phones and computers, the technology is consistently growing and improving.

What Are Solar Panels Made Of?

Solar panels are made with several different components — glass, EVA, silicone, and a metal frame — that all work together to harness solar energy.

Put simply, solar panels are made of a series of small photovoltaic cells that are all linked together to convert photons into electricity.

These cells are made of silicon semiconductors; positive and negative silicon layers that move and react together to produce electric potential in the panel.

Currently, there are three different types of solar panels available on the market:

  • Monocrystalline
  • Polycrystalline
  • Thin-film

Monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels have a similar manufacturing process, although monocrystalline panels are more efficient.

The silicone used for monocrystalline panels is formed into bars and then cut into thin wafers, using single-crystal silicon, whereas polycrystalline panels are made with many fragments of silicone melted into wafers.

Because there are so many crystals in each solar cell in polycrystalline panels there is less freedom for electrons to move around, resulting in less efficiency.

Whereas because monocrystalline cells have only a single crystal there is more room for the movement of electrons, and thus a higher efficiency — but also a higher financial cost.

Thin-film or amorphous panels are made of one or more thin layers of photovoltaic conductors, resulting in an exceedingly thin panel that is often flexible and can be molded into various shapes.

They use less silicone than traditional panels and thus have less impact on the environment, are lightweight, and cost less, although are far less efficient and have a shorter lifespan than traditional panels.

What Are Solar Panels Good For?

Since installing solar panels can be somewhat complicated, and since the initial financial outlay for a solar setup can be exceedingly expensive, many would-be solar users find themselves asking the important question: is it worth it?

Since solar energy is essentially free after the initial setup cost, and is great for the environment, switching to solar or at least adding it to your energy supply can be highly beneficial for these reasons alone.

There are many benefits to using solar panels, including:

  • Clean, renewable energy
  • Free power for life!
  • Save money on electricity bills
  • Allows you to be electrically self-sufficient and off-grid
  • Limitless amount of power
  • Reduces air pollution

What Are Solar Panels Used for in Homes?

As mentioned earlier, solar power has a massive variety of uses in homes.

When combined with solar water heaters and solar cookers, it’s highly possible to make your home 100% solar-powered, but the majority of your power will come from solar panels themselves.

Here are the most common ways solar panels are used in homes:

  • Electricity. The most common use of solar panels in your home is for electricity. Your solar setup can be used to replace your grid power supply, and depending on the size of your system, you can conceivably replace all of your electricity usage with solar panels and batteries.
  • Lighting. Solar panels are a great way to provide lighting for your home. You have the choice of using 12v LED lights that are powered directly from your battery, or energy-efficient bulbs that are used with an inverter. These can be used all over the inside of your home, as well as in your garden, garage, and for security lights.
  • Water pumping. In an off-grid situation, especially if you live on a small farm, you’ll need to take your water needs into your own hands. This means you’ll need to pump water into tanks for use in your home and garden, as well as use a pressure pump to generate pressure through your taps and shower. This can all be achieved with solar panels and solar pumps.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

As you may have gathered by now, solar panels work by allowing photons from the sun to be harnessed to create and store electricity.

These photons are harnessed by small photovoltaic cells within the panel, which can hold a variety of configurations including 32, 36, 48, 60, 72, and 96 cells, depending on the panel’s size and how much energy it can harness.

These cells all link up together to make a whole solar panel.

Put simply, these photovoltaic cells need to establish an electric field, which is done by creating a negative and positive charge within the cells of the panel.

When a photon from the sun hits the panel, this electric field will push the electron inside the photon out of the cell and down into your battery as an electric charge which can then be stored.

Of course, the solar panel on its own will not be enough, and you’ll need two other essential components in your setup too: a regulator and inverter.

Regulators

While many inverters have regulators built into them, they are still a vital aspect to consider.

Regulators, or Charge Controllers, work by keeping the current coming from your panel to your batteries regularly to prevent your batteries from overcharging.

Solar panel power monitor regulator

Throughout the day, the energy of the sun charging your battery changes, peaking at midday and dipping in the morning and evening.

With this energy spike comes a voltage spike, which may exceed the amount of voltage your battery can handle.

A charge controller helps keep this voltage regular and keeps your solar components safe.

Inverters

The current coming from your batteries is “direct current (DC),” and since almost all common household appliances run on “alternating current (AC),” this current needs to be converted in order to power your appliances.

This is done with an inverter, although these devices do far more than that too, and so are considered as the “brains” of your solar setup.

Solar panel inverters

Many inverters also have data monitoring complete with WiFi, grid integration, and built-in charge control, although the more complex inverter you opt for the more you’ll naturally pay for it.

Inverters can range from a basic 100-watt power rating all the way to many kilowatts in size depending on your needs.

Solar Panel Overview

The sun is the most consistent and abundant energy source available to us, and it makes sense to harness some of this power to use.

Solar panels are used to harness this abundant power from the sun, converting photons into useable electricity all day long, for free.

Solar panels are one of the biggest considerations in your solar setup, as they will largely dictate the amount of power available in your system.

The bigger and more efficient your solar panel, the more solar energy it can harness and direct to your battery, and the more electricity you’ll have available to use.

A good solar system begins with a good solar panel, and hopefully, you now know a lot more about how this incredible sun-harnessing technology works!

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