How do solar panels work?

The sun is the ultimate source of energy,1 and we can all benefit by tapping into its resources. But how do solar panels work? How does something as simple as a solar panel take sunlight and use it to power your oven, television, and even Xbox?

Basically, what’s happening is your solar panel system uses photons to separate electrons from atoms. Photons are particles of light. The process of separating electrons from their atoms creates electricity.

Here’s the process in more detail:

1 - Solar panels collect sunlight

solar panels collect sunlight

Every solar panel contains photovoltaic (PV) cells. PV cells take light, or photons, and turn the light into electricity. When sunlight hits the solar panel, PV cells get to work by producing direct current (DC) electricity. (Pssst...want to geek-out at the science behind this? Check out NASA’s explanation.)

This is all great—but DC electricity can’t power your home on its own. That’s where the other pieces of solar energy equipment come into the picture. On to inverters!

2 - Inverters convert solar power to usable electricity

Some solar panel system setups have a single inverter (often called a “string” inverter) for the entire system. Some have a microinverter attached behind each panel. The most important thing to know about inverters is that they convert DC electricity, produced by the solar panels, into alternating current (AC) electricity. That’s the good stuff that powers your home. Now we’re getting somewhere.

3 - Electricity is used in the home

Electricity runs through your net meter, makes itself comfortable in your home, and powers your appliances. It works just like your electricity does now—you don’t have to change a thing. If your solar panels don’t produce enough energy to cover all of your needs, don’t worry. You’re still connected to traditional power companies via the grid, so you can automatically draw more energy from your utility when you need. What happens if you produce more power than you use? Let’s find out.

4 - Leftover electricity goes back to the grid

It might seem counterintuitive to be on the traditional power grid when you have a solar energy system, but being on the power grid has an advantages. It allows you to use as much electricity as you need before sending any excess power back to your utility company to use. Solar panels generate electricity when the sun is up, but we use electricity at night too, when we’re not producing solar power. That’s why it’s important to stay connected to your utilities.

5 - Electricity is measured by the net meter

solar panel net meter

For this last part, you’ll need to know what a net metering agreement is. Net metering is when your local utility company agrees to provide energy credits for any surplus power you produce and send back to the grid. In some cases, these credits can roll over so you accrue them long-term, and some utilities will even cut you a check for your power production credits.

The net meter device is installed in the home and measures the electricity going to and from the grid. This meter is similar to the electric meter you probably have now, but it measures power going in two directions instead of just one. Get more specifics on net metering.

A note on net metering

It’s important to note that if you have a shared PPA agreement where you pay for power produced, you will most likely pay more for your solar power in the summer. This seems backward right? Let us explain: summer means more sunlight which also means more solar power production. BUT the good news is because you’re relying less on traditional electricity, it should help offset your total usage costs. 

Now add in the value of accruing net metering credits, and while it may seem slow at first, it ends up saving you money in the long-run. Give it about twelve months after you’ve had solar installed to see the net metering process begin to tip in your favor.

Experience the power of solar panels

Interested in going solar? We can help you work out the details. Start your solar journey with a free solar quote


How to Go Solar

Vivint Solar makes renewable energy a simple and affordable alternative. We take care of everything from solar system design, to paperwork and permitting, to installation and maintenance.

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