How Solar Power Works

Quickly learn how solar power works as well as a number of fun facts in the article and videos below.

Solar power is taking the world by storm. The cost of solar panels has come down so much that hundreds of millions of people can probably benefit financially from going solar. It’s an exciting time, as our entire electricity system is being democratized by this advancement, as well as the budding energy storage industry, which is also seeing dramatic cost reductions.

The advantages of solar energy are immense, as I discussed the other day, but how does sunlight actually become electricity? I imagine a number of you have wondered how solar power works, so I figured I’d do a post diving into the matter.

If you want to take a really deep dive, I recommend this piece on how solar cells work. Honestly, it’s a bit technical for me, but it was written by a friend, so I was especially driven to read it, and I did find it interesting to learn a little more about the nitty gritty details of how solar cells work. But let me put the story in more common terms for interested non-engineers.

Crystalline silicon is placed behind glass in most solar power systems. The crystalline silicon is not pure, but mixed with another element such as phosphorus or boron so that there are some free electrons “floating around.” The free electrons in a crystalline silicon solar panel, when it receives sunlight, then get knocked out or “raised to a higher level,” creating electricity which travels along a connected, external circuit.

How Solar Power Works 2

Of course, the process is a bit different for solar power systems using different types of solar cells and solar panels. And there are a lot of different types of solar cells and solar panels, but the general point is the same: use sunlight to knock electrons loose from mixtures of photoelectric materials. Capture those electrons and you’ve got electricity. That’s how solar power works.

For a more detailed look at how solar power works that even goes beyond the Solar Love piece noted above, check out this extremely thorough presentation by SBCC, or the following TED Talk on how solar energy works:

With solar panel costs so low now, the big effort is on cutting down solar “soft costs,” which the US government is working on via its SunShot Initiative.

How Solar Power Works 1

Image Credits: Zachary Shahan | CleanTechnica (CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

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