15 Feb How Does Solar Energy Work?
Did you know that solar energy is the most abundant energy resource on earth? 173,000 terawatts of solar energy are hitting the earth at any given moment. That’s more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use!
With such an abundant energy source, why wouldn’t we harvest it to power our homes? If you’re interested in learning the details on how we make this energy power your life (and even the grid), keep reading. We’ve got the 5 steps to turning sunlight into usable power.
Step 1: The Solar Panel Set-Up
Your solar system starts with the solar panels. Each panel is made of a layer of silicon cells, a metal frame, a glass casing covered by a special film, and wiring. The panels are grouped together into arrays and placed on rooftops or in large outdoor spaces in order to maximize performance to absorb sunlight during daylight hours.
Step 2: Sunlight Activates Your Panels
Inside of each solar cell is a thin semiconductor wafer made from two layers of silicon. One layer is positively charged, and the other negatively charged, forming an electric field. When sunlight strikes a photovoltaic solar cell, it energizes the cell and causes electrons from the atoms within the semiconductor wafer to break free of their covalent bonds. Those loose electrons are set into motion by the electric field surrounding the wafer, and this motion creates an electrical current.
Step 3: Converting the Electrical Current
Your solar panels work efficiently to turn sunlight into electricity, but the electricity generated is direct current electricity (DC), which is not the type of electricity that powers homes in the US. It needs to be converted into alternating current (AC) electricity.
DC electricity can easily be changed into AC electricity by what’s called an inverter. In modern solar systems, these inverters can be configured as one inverter for the entire system or as individual microinverters attached behind the panels.
Step 4: Distribution
After converting your solar energy to AC electricity, it is distributed within the home to power your appliances. It works exactly the same way as the electrical power generated through the grid by your electric utility company, so nothing within the home needs to change. Since you still remain connected to your traditional power company, you can automatically draw additional electricity to supplement any solar shortages from the grid.
Step 5: Tracking Your Power
Just as there are fluctuations in solar energy access overnight or on cloudy days, so does your electricity usage if you’re away from home. This is why a meter is used to measure the electricity flowing in both directions—to and from your home. This is how the electrical company tracks and provides credits for any surplus power you send back to the grid. This is known as net metering.
Now is one of the best times to take advantage of solar. The federal government has extended the 26% tax rebate on installing solar panels.