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How Does Solar Power Work and How Do We Use It?

One of the most commonly asked questions in the world of solar energy is: “how does solar power work?”  The answer is actually fairly simple and can be understood by anyone with even a tiny amount of scientific knowledge. Most people know that solar energy is electricity produced by exposing solar panels to sunlight, but how does solar power work for real?

To understand the details of this question, we must first look at how the sun produces energy, and then understand the components of a solar unit and how each one does its part to generate useable electricity. With this simple solar power explanation, you’ll finally be able to answer the question of how solar power works for yourself and how its powerful technologies will ultimately be able to stop climate change.

How does solar power work?

Part 1- The Sun as Energy Creator

sun photonsMost people understand that the sun gives life to all things on this planet through its light and heat, but the sun also produces many other things. The process of solar energy began in the center of the sun, almost a million years ago. Photons are created through the fusion of atoms in the sun's core. They will eventually be what generates solar power, but not until they are able to escape from the sun. 

It generally takes a photon over a million years to escape from the center of the sun to the sun’s surface. Once at the surface, the photons are sent hurtling out into space in all directions, and some of them are aimed directly at the Earth. 

The photons are sent out at such an incredibly fast speed, that the ones which reach Earth travel over 93 million miles in under 8 minutes. They are basically tiny packages of sunlight, also known as quanta - which is where the term quantum mechanics comes from.

Part 2- Converting Photons into Energy

Once the photons reach Earth, we must harness them in order to create electricity from them. This is done through the use of photovoltaic cells which react with the photons. These PV cells are coated with a material -  usually silicon in most modern cells - which displays the photovoltaic effect. 

The photovoltaic effect is used to describe the process in which energy is created by certain materials when they are exposed to solar radiation or sunlight. This process was first discovered by the French scientist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel in the mid 1800’s. These PV cells are stimulated by sunlight and then produce direct current electricity. However, this energy must still be made useable.

Part 3- AC/DC

No, not the band. Most all appliances and electronics use alternating current or AC power, which differs from the direct current or DC power that is generated by solar panels. In order to transform this DC power into AC power, it is necessary to have a solar power inverter connected to your solar panels. This inverter allows the energy generated to be consumed, fed back into the grid, or used to charge a battery depending on what type of solar energy generating unit you have.

Part 4- Solar Energy Consumption and Storage

Once the solar energy is converted into AC power, it is possible to use this energy to power your home or business. If you have a grid tie solar system, the electricity you produce will be fed directly back into your local power grid. When you are producing electricity, any energy you consume will come directly from your solar system and any excess will go back into the grid. 

When you are not producing electricity, then any electricity you consume will come directly from the power grid. If you have an off-grid solar system, then your system will have a rechargeable battery in the loop, right after the inverter. This battery is charged by your solar cells and stores any excess energy, which guarantees that you will always be using the energy you generate yourself, and that you’ll always have energy as long as you produce sufficient amounts.

How Does Silicon Produce Energy?

Silicon is the most common conductor used in PV cells nowadays, for several reasons. The main reasons lie in the extremely low price of silicon and the fact that it’s widely available worldwide. 

silicon atomHowever, pure silicon is not an excellent conductor due to its crystalline structure. A silicon atom has 14 electrons in three different layers (or shells), with 2 electrons in the first, 8 in the second, and 4 in the third layer. 

This third layer is only half full and the atoms always seek to fill up their layers with electrons by sharing them with other atoms around them. 

However, because of the even number of electrons, each silicon atom will have a full share, which leaves less room for free electrons to go. When energy is added to silicon, some of these electrons break free and look for holes left by other free electrons. 

This movement of electrons is what actually generates electricity. The photons strike the PV cell and ideally, each photon will knock one electron free and send it searching for a hole to fill, thus conducting electricity. Because silicon has an even number of electrons, all modern solar cells use impure silicon as a way to free up extra electrons to conduct energy better. 

All solar companies have a patented crystalline structure that they use in their own panels, and these are made by adding other atoms into the silicon, although usually only a few parts per million. The two main types of atoms that are added to silicon to form solar cells are usually phosphorous and boron.

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