How does solar power work?

The sun is the original source of all energy,1 and we can all benefit from its resources. But how does solar power actually work? How is it that something as simple as a solar panel can take sunlight and use it to power things like your oven, television, and other appliances like your Xbox?

We can answer that for you. In this article, we’ll define solar for you, explain the solar process and how it works, help you understand where the concept of solar energy originated, explain why the renewability of solar energy can be so impactful, help you understand how solar can save you money, and go over a few other helpful things like how much solar can cost and how it relates to things like batteries and ev chargers. Let’s get started.

What is solar energy?

Solar energy is a type of fuel that’s powered by the sun. That’s really important because (hopefully) the sun will never run dry. We’ll never wake up one day and not see the sun. It’ll always be there (again, fingers crossed). Because the sun shines every day, it is the ultimate source of renewable energy (we’ll talk about that a little later on). We don’t have to refuel the sun unlike gas or oil.

Solar photovoltaics (also know as “PV”) take that sunlight and convert it into electricity, and we capture that electricity with solar panels. In those solar panels exist a ton of atoms (think back to 4th grade science for this). Atoms are the smallest particles of matter that we know of, and at the center of an atom is something called a nucleus (think of it as the heart or brain of the atom). The nucleus is made of tiny things called protons and neutrons. Solar energy works when the photons of an atom knock the electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity.

Solar panels are made up of these small things called PV cells and many PV cells linked together make a solar panel. Most solar cells are made out of silicon. These solar cells are organized into sets or modules and then connected into solar panels, which you see on roofs.

How does solar power work?

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

Now let's learn more about how solar panels work. When it comes to solar panels, the process can really be summed up in five basic steps:

Step 1. Solar panels capture sunlight

solar panesl on roof

Each solar panel contains photovoltaic (PV) cells. PV cells take light, or photons, and convert it to solar electricity. When sunlight hits the solar panel, PV cells produce direct current (DC) electricity. (Hey… want to know the science behind this in more detail? See the explanation from NASA).

This is all well and good — but DC electricity can't power your home on its own. This is where other pieces of solar power equipment come in. Let's move on to solar inverters!

Step 2. Inverters convert solar energy to useful electricity

how does solar power work

Some solar panel system configurations have a single inverter (often called a string inverter) for the entire system. Some have a microinverter connected behind each solar panel. The most important thing to know about inverters is that they convert DC electricity from solar panels to alternating current (AC) electricity. This electricity is what powers your home. Here we go.

Step 3. Solar electricity is used in the home

Solar electricity runs through your net meter, makes itself comfortable in your home, and powers your appliances. It works just like your traditional 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 electricity 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.

Step 4. Leftover solar electricity goes 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 its advantages. It allows you to use as much electricity as you need before sending any excess solar power to your power 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 the power grid. Here's how it works:

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Step 5. Solar Electricity is measured by the net meter

digital 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 solar power you produce and send it back to the power grid. In some cases, these energy 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 power 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. Have more questions? Get even more specifics on net metering here.

A note on net metering

It’s important to note that if you have a shared PPA agreement where you pay for the solar energy your panels produce, 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 installed your solar energy system to see the net metering process begin to tip in your favor. Where did the idea of solar come from?

From what history we’ve recorded as a people, we know that humanity has been using solar power as far back in history as the 7th century B.C. From focusing solar energy on glass to start fires, to directing sunlight through mirrors to illuminate a room, man has always had a very close relationship with the awesome power of the sun. However, the concept of harnessing solar power via PV cells really came about, from 1839-1883, by the ingenuity of the following five men:

  • 1839: Edmond Becquerel In 1839, French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the impact of photovoltaics while experimenting with a cell made of metal electrodes and noted that the cell produced more electricity when it was exposed to light.

  • 1873: Willoughby Smith In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium could function as a photoconductor.

  • 1876: William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day In 1876 William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day applied the photovoltaic principle discovered by Becquerel to selenium and recorded that it could, in fact, generate electricity when exposed to light.

  • 1876: William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritz created the first working selenium solar cell.

Why is solar power considered “renewable” and what does that mean?

Remember how we talked about the sun being the ultimate source of renewable energy because it (hopefully) will never run out? When we talk about renewable in terms of solar energy, we’re talking about something that’s sustainable, easy to use, requires very little maintenance, and will keep itself going for a long period of time. That’s the sun. The sun is renewable because it literally renews itself. It is a source of power that will not run out (again, we hope) which means we can continue using the impacts to generate energy for us without having to refuel of renew it. Aside from the sun, other sources of renewable energy include the wind and hydropower.

The opposite of renewable would be a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels (gas, oil, coal, petroleum, etc.) are not renewable because they require constant refuling, maintenance, and they are finite resources which will eventually run out over time. They are also horrendously bad for the environment because of the amount of carbon emissions they generate which pollutes the air, plants, and this beautiful earth we live on.

How can solar energy potentially save me money?

Now we’ve come to the big question. How much can solar energy save you? And the simple answer is that it depends on you and your energy needs. The amount of savings you get from solar power varies depending on a myriad of different things, including: the size of your house, the number of people living in your house, the amount of electricity you consume as a household each month, the size of your solar energy system, the amount of exposure that your solar energy system gets to direct sunlight, the incentives available in your area, the type of solar agreement you sign, and your local county/utility company requirements can all affect how much your solar energy system may potentially save you.

The good news is that we can help. With your permission, our solar energy experts will go through your home and take measurements of your roof, it’s tilt, your attic (if you have one) the size of your home, and a bunch of other things that help them determine if your home is a good fit for solar. They’ll also talk to you about the different solar plans we offer and help you determine the type of plan available to you that will suit your needs and the plan that’s available to you based on your area. Our plans range from a Solar Cash Agreement where you buy solar panels outright to a Solar Loan Agreement where you could take out a loan to pay for them. You could also pay for the power your system produces with a Solar PPA or lease the equipment through a Solar Lease.

Each of these financing options can help you save money in a different way, while still helping harness the power of the sun through renewable solar energy.

What else should I know when it comes to solar power?

The beauty of a solar energy system is that it makes friends with other application that are super compatible. The solar battery and the ev charger are two up-and-coming products that pair beautifully with a solar energy system and can really impact your quality of life.

As your solar energy system works for you, it can send excess energy back to the grid which may potentially save you on your utility bill. But, it can also store some of that excess energy in a solar battery. With a solar battery, your system save saves excess solar energy from your panels and uses it to power your home when you need it most—like during an outage or when the sun goes down.

Though it’s not connected to your solar energy system, an ev charger is still incredibly useful for those who want to quickly charge up their electric vehicle. Think of it this way: a standard outlet (trad. 110V) should be able to easily charge your home appliances. But when it comes to your electric vehicle, you need a stronger, more powerful outlet to really make an impact. With a Vivint Solar installed ev charger, you can charge up to six times faster than a standard home outlet—plus, schedule reminders, charging times, and track your energy use with your smartphone.

These are just two of the many innovations that are improving the way we use smart home technology, both now and in the future.

That’s how solar energy works

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

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