How do solar panels work?

What are solar panels?

Put simply, solar panels are a collection of solar cells made up of smaller photovoltaic (PV) cells. Each PV cell is approximately six inches long by six inches wide, squarish and looks like a small reflective window. The cells are arranged in a grid, which makes up the panels. The PV cells are encased by a semiconducting material. In residential solar panels, this material is most typically crystalline silicon (solar cells on space satellites utilize thin-film technologies with cadmium telluride and amorphous silicon). Either way, it’s the grouping of these cells into a grid that makes up a solar panel that can then absorb sunlight and convert it into energy.

How solar panels work

A solar panel works by absorbing sunlight through solar cells, which creates a direct current. The direct current then travels from panels through an inverter, which converts the energy into usable electricity as it reaches to the breaker panel of your home. It’s almost like having your own personal power plant on your roof with an endless supply of clean energy.

  1. Solar panels absorb energy from sunlight
    The sun is like a natural nuclear reactor, always releasing energy. The energy released by the sun, called photons, hits the photovoltaic cells, which creates an electrical field and produces direct current (DC).
  2. Inverters convert direct current into usable electricity
    Typically solar panel systems have a single inverter for the entire system or a microinverter connected to every panel. Either way, the purpose of the inverter is to convert direct currents (DC) into alternative currents (AC), which is what makes electricity usable inside your home.
  3. Electricity from solar panels is used in your home
    Electricity powers your home and appliances just like normal. If for whatever reason the residential solar panels you installed didn’t produce enough power to meet your electricity needs, you’ll be able to source electricity from the grid automatically.
  4. Leftover electricity goes back on the grid
    Sometimes solar panels will produce more power than you and your family need. When this happens, electricity will go back onto the grid. This is why you’ll still want to be attached to your traditional power grid.
  5. Electricity is measured by the net meter
    Depending on your net metering agreement, your local utility company might give you energy credits for surplus power your solar panels send back to the grid. Some utility companies will even reimburse you for your power production credits. More
Kathryn Parkman

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity.

Kathryn is a writer and an editor with experience in community journalism and advertising. She graduated from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she studied composition, literature and linguistics.

Kathryn Parkman2020-01-20T13:43:43-05:00

About the Author: Kathryn Parkman

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kathryn Parkman believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase, which is why she spends hours researching companies and industries for ConsumerAffairs. She believes conscious consumption is everyone's responsibility and that all content deserves integrity. Kathryn is a writer and an editor with experience in community journalism and advertising. She graduated from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she studied composition, literature and linguistics.