How Do Solar Panels Work?

Man Putting Solar Panel on Roof

January 15, 2024

Solar panels are devices that convert sunlight into electricity. They are becoming increasingly popular because solar panels generate clean, renewable energy, saving homeowners and businessowners money with their electricity bills.

How do solar panels actually work? In this blog post, we will explain the basic principles of solar power and the main components of a solar panel system.

The Photovoltaic Effect: The Key to Solar Power

The science behind solar power is based on the photovoltaic effect, which is the ability of some materials to produce electric current when exposed to light. The photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel, who observed that a metal electrode immersed in a solution generated an electric voltage when illuminated by sunlight.

The photovoltaic effect occurs when photons, or particles of light, hit a material and knock electrons loose from atoms. The electrons then flow through a circuit, creating an electric current. This is how solar panels generate electricity from sunlight.

Solar Cells: The Building Blocks of Solar Panels

Solar Cells inside Solar PanelA solar panel is made up of many smaller units called solar cells, which are the devices that perform the photovoltaic effect. Solar cells are usually made of silicon, which is a semiconductor material that can conduct electricity under certain conditions.

A silicon solar cell consists of two layers of silicon with opposite electrical charges: one layer has a positive charge (p-type) and the other has a negative charge (n-type). When sunlight hits the solar cell, it creates electron-hole pairs in both layers. An electron-hole pair is a pair of free electrons and positively charged spaces (holes) left by electrons that have been knocked out of their original positions.

The electric field between the two layers forces the electrons to move from the n-type layer to the p-type layer, and the holes to move from the p-type layer to the n-type layer. This creates a flow of electric current from one layer to the other through an external circuit. The more sunlight that hits the solar cell, the more electric current it produces.

Solar Modules: The Units of Solar Panels

A single solar cell can only produce a small amount of electricity, typically around 0.5 volts and a few watts. To increase the voltage and power output, solar cells are connected together in series and parallel to form larger units called solar modules or solar panels. A typical solar module consists of 60 or 72 solar cells and can produce around 20 volts and 300 watts.

Solar modules are usually enclosed in a protective frame and covered with a glass or plastic sheet to prevent damage from weather and dust. They also have bypass diodes that allow the electric current to flow around shaded or damaged cells, preventing power loss and overheating.

Solar Arrays: The Collections of Solar Panels

Array of Solar PanelsA single solar module is not enough to meet the electricity needs of most homes or businesses. To generate more electricity, multiple solar modules are connected together in series and parallel to form larger units called solar arrays or solar systems. A typical residential solar array consists of 10 to 20 solar modules and can produce around 3 to 6 kilowatts.

Solar arrays are usually mounted on rooftops, ground mounts, or tracking systems that follow the sun’s movement across the sky. They also have junction boxes that connect the modules together and provide terminals for wiring. Many will add power to their outdoor living space in a patio cover by using solar power panels.

Solar Inverters: The Converters of Solar Power

The electricity produced by solar arrays is direct current (DC), which means it flows in one direction. However, most appliances and devices use alternating current (AC), which means it changes direction periodically. To make solar power compatible with AC devices, it needs to be converted by a device called a solar inverter.

A solar inverter is an electronic device that changes DC electricity into AC electricity. It also regulates the voltage and frequency of the output to match the grid standards or the load requirements. There are different types of solar inverters, such as string inverters, microinverters, and power optimizers, that have different advantages and disadvantages depending on the size and configuration of the solar system.

Solar Batteries: The Storers of Solar Power

Solar Panel BatteriesOne of the challenges of solar power is that it is intermittent, meaning it is not available at all times. For example, at night or on cloudy days, there is less or no sunlight available to generate electricity. To overcome this challenge, some solar systems use batteries to store excess electricity during peak production hours and use it during low production hours or power outages.

A solar battery is a device that stores electrical energy in chemical form and releases it when needed. It can be connected to either the DC or AC side of the solar system, depending on the type and design of the battery. There are different types of batteries, such as lead-acid, lithium-ion, and flow batteries, that have different characteristics and applications.


Solar panels work by converting sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. They are composed of solar cells, solar modules, solar arrays, solar inverters, and sometimes solar batteries. Solar panels are a great way to generate clean, renewable energy and save money on electricity bills. If you are interested in installing solar panels on your home or business, call Rock Electric today.

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