What are Solar Panels and How do They Work?

This quick intro will explain how solar panels work, some of the amazing ways they are used, how they developed in recent times, and what we have to look forward to as solar technology develops and becomes even more efficient and affordable.

single solar panel against a blue sky to illustrate solar panels

Solar panels are an array of photovoltaic cells or PVC's that work together to collect solar light energy and convert it into electricity for direct use or storage in batteries.

A solar photovoltaic array may consist of just a few photovoltaic cells or dozens, depending on the energy need for which the array has been produced.

Electricity is produced as photons from sunlight strike a layer of silicon and other elements, exciting electrons in the atoms of those elements. A flow of electrons is created, in turn allowing an electric current to form.

It is this current (direct current or DC) that can be used to operate electrical devices or can be stored as chemical potential energy in a battery or series of batteries. The direct current electricity can, when needed, be converted to alternating current (AC) for household or industry use when needed.

History of the Solar Panel

Solar panels have a long history of use, beginning with the space programs in the United States and other countries.

In 1954, Bell Labs developed the first silicon photovoltaic cell. This cell had an efficiency of 4%. Scientists at Bell Labs were later able to achieve 11% efficiency from the same type of PVC in later experiments. In 1958, the Vanguard I space satellite used a small array of PVC's to produce less than 1 watt of power for its radios.

Later that year, other satellites in the United States and Russia were successfully fitted with solar arrays. There were limited commercial or private uses for PVC's at this time due to the low power produced and cost of them at this time.

It was not until the 1970's and '80's that the use of solar energy panels became more common is the lives of average citizens. In 1979, a 3.5 kW system was installed on the Papago Indian Reservation in southern Arizona.

For 4 years, the system allowed the powering of a water pump and the electricity in 15 homes until grid power was made available to the reservation. The system is still in use today as a means of pumping water to the residents of the reservation.

You can learn more about the history of solar power in the 20th century, and also more recent developments in the history of solar energy from 1980's to the present time.

Present and Future Outlook for the Residential
Solar Panel

Things have advanced in photovoltaic technology over the past few decades. Solar cells are very commonly seen in everyday devices such as calculators and traffic lights. It's also common to see them in new public buildings and housing construction.

Part of this revitalization in the solar cell industry is because of the growing efficiency of current PVC's, which at the present time is around 20-25%. This may seem to still be a bit inefficient, but when compared to the earliest cell's efficiency of 4%, PVC technology has grown tremendously.

As you can see from the chart below, the production of Photovoltaic Arrays in the world has continued to increase since 1980.

chart illustrating growth and world production in the manufacture of photovoltaic arrays from 1980 to 2007

Countries outside of the United States are looking to solar energy as a potentially viable power source for the future, but they realize that more research must be conducted into new technologies in order to drive the cost down to an affordable rate for anyone interested in adding solar to their home or business. Hopefully, as awareness grows across the world about solar and all of its benefits, the cost will indeed decrease and make solar panels affordable to everyone who wants them.

With our energy costs rising every single year, the best investment we can make in our home is to add panels to collect the sun, power our appliances and heat our water, and then store as much as possible for those cloudy days. It simply makes good common sense and good financial sense to make the most we can from solar energy.

It is also noteworthy to compare the efficiency of current PVC's to the average automobile engine, with an efficiency averaging only 30%. New technologies are being developed every day, and this comparison makes it easy to see that the use of PVC's could bring about a revolution in energy collection and usage over the next several decades.

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