Did you know solar is one of the cheapest forms of energy?1 It seems like everyone is talking about solar power these days, so what exactly is it and how do solar panels actually work?
As you probably know, the sun doesn’t just give us light, it also provides us with endless amounts of free electricity. Sure, we can create our own electricity with power stations and fossil fuels, but the sun does a far better job.
Solar panels are a way of capturing the energy (photons) the sun sends us and turning it into electricity. Let’s take a look at the elements of solar panels and how they all fit together.2
The solar panels themselves are the panels you see on top of houses. They’re made of many photovoltaic (PV) cells that are able to absorb light (photons) and turn it into ‘electrons’.3
Electrons are tiny particles that are part of atoms. Which means electrons are also part of the atoms in the PV cells. When the light energy is absorbed by the PV cells, it knocks the electrons loose and creates a flow of electrons (aka an electrical current). The solar panels are then able to harness this current and turn it into electricity.4
But, what exactly are these PV cells? PV cells are usually made from silicon which is purified and shaped into the flat, thin rectangles you see on solar panels. These silicon panels are treated with various materials to give them their light-absorbing, electricity-making properties.5 But, it doesn’t stop there. Solar panels only convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity.6 This type of electricity isn’t the type of electricity that is used to power homes. DC electricity is most commonly found in smaller devices, like batteries and electronics, but it’s not as efficient in powering homes.
Once the solar panels have done their thing and transformed sunlight into DC electricity, it’s then the inverter's time to shine. The inverter takes that DC energy and turns it into alternating current (AC) electricity.7 AC electricity is compatible with the grid and is the type of electricity most commonly used in homes.
The inverter is also like the ‘manager’ of the whole system. It regulates the flow of electricity and can adjust the voltage and current to match the requirements of the electrical grid or the devices the electricity is being used for. Inverters can be monitored remotely from mobile apps, giving consumers the power to keep an eye on their solar system.8
Australia is one of the sunniest countries in the world, so a lot of the time your solar system will produce more electricity than is needed to power your home. Unless you have a battery installed to store excess energy, any surplus is diverted to the ‘grid’.
The power grid is a network of power stations, power lines and other equipment that distribute electricity across Australia.9 Through this network, excess energy created by your system is directed back to the grid for storage. This type of ‘grid-connected’ solar system is very common in Australia because it provides consistent, stable electricity.
You can also have a grid-connected solar system with a battery backup. Your system will still feed electricity back to the grid in times of excess production, but it will also feed some electricity into a battery for later use. The benefit of this is that during the night or even just an overcast day, you won’t have to rely on the grid for all your electricity.