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December 1, 2021

How Solar Energy Systems Work

A beginner's guide to learn the basics about solar energy systems and electricity.
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Blog - How Solar Energy Systems Work

Solar energy can be traced back from the 7th Century B.C. when magnifying glasses were used to make fireⁱ. Today, you can find solar throughout the world from USA to Italy to Japan. Solar prices have continuously decreased throughout the years as production has increased. And companies and individuals have adopted solar for both the economic and positive environmental benefits.  

U.S. solar power capacity has grown to an estimated 97.2 gigawatts (GW) – enough to power the equivalent of 18 million average American homes². This solar energy production offsets more than 122 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions which is the equivalent of planting 2 billion trees³. Looking at the data globally, we amounted up to 627 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2019⁴ which is roughly 116 million average American homes and 12.9 billion trees.

With more research and solar companies releasing products to make solar energy more efficient and cost effective, the solar industry isn’t stopping here. Should you join the solar movement? How does solar energy work? We’re here to explain the basics on solar energy, types of electricity, and how solar energy systems work.

What is solar energy?

Solar energy starts with the sun. The sun emits light called solar radiation, or electromagnetic radiation, which is captured by solar technologies. These solar technologies convert the captured radiation into useful forms of energy.

There are two types of solar technologies: photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP). Photovoltaics creates electricity by converting sunlight directly from cells within a solar panel and is typically used for homes, commercial buildings, and utility scale products. Concentrating solar-thermal power is typically used for industrial applications. Since commercial and residential solar is dominated by photovoltaics we’ll focus on photovoltaic systems.  

Electricity Basics

Before we can dive into how solar PV systems work, we must cover energy basics. There are 2 forms of electric currents: direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). Direct current is an electric current that flows in only one direction and is used with electronic devices with a battery, such as laptops and cell phones. Alternating current is an electric current that periodically reverses directions and changes magnitudes. This allows the current to travel farther. We use alternating current to power homes and buildings. Now that we know the basics, lets jump into how solar PV systems work.

How do solar PV systems work?

We’ve all seen solar panels on roofs of houses, but how is electricity produced?  

Power flow without a battery installed
  1. The first step starts when sunlight shines onto solar panels, or PV panels.
  1. The solar cells within the solar panels absorb the energy and generate direct current (DC) electricity.
  1. Wiring and circuits that are connected to the solar panels collect the DC electricity and pass it through an inverter to convert to alternating current (AC) electricity.
  1. AC electricity is then passed to your home’s existing fuse box and the energy is distributed throughout your home powering all your devices.
  1. (optional) Additionally, any electricity that isn’t used to power your home can typically be sent to the power grid (operated by the utility companies) or to charge a battery for backup electricity.

The overall process for solar PV systems is quite simple and can be boiled down to just four steps. Solar panels are built with technologies to convert the sun’s rays into energy and the many components of solar PV systems handles the rest. Learn more about each component in our next blog.

It’s important to note that going solar doesn’t mean you are left in the dark by utility companies (no pun intended). You can still get a portion of electricity from the grid to supplement your energy consumption at night or on a rainy day when solar cells don’t have the sunlight needed to produce electricity. So, you can happily use your electricity knowing that you’re saving money and positively impacting the environment.  

Are you going to join the solar movement? Be a part of the estimated 4 million homes in the U.S. with solar installations in 2023⁵ – it’s the new big thing. Follow us on social media for our blog updates to stay up to date about all things solar.

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References

1 https://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/solar_timeline.pdf  

2 https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/solar-energy-united-states

3 https://www.seia.org/initiatives/climate-change#:~:text=Through%20Q2%202020%2C%20the%20U.S.,tons%20of%20carbon%20dioxide%20emissions.

4 https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/features/solar-power-countries-installed-capacity/  

5 https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2020/09/04/which-us-cities-have-the-highest-proportion-of-solar-powered-homes/  

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