How Do Solar Panels Work?

ATLG solar panels get the basic principle that solar panels use the suns rays to generate heat, power or electricity. But how do they actually function to achieve this?

There are different types of solar panels that use different means to create energy.

The Photovoltaic Cell

This is just a fancy word for a mechanism (cell) that converts sunlight (photons) into an electric charge or electricity (volts). Hundreds of these cells are used to make up one solar panel.

The cell consists of two parts, both primarily made of silicon which has semi-conductive properties, layered one on top of the other. The top layer integrates a material which has a negative charge (for example, phosphorus) and a positive charge into the lower layer (for example, boron).

These two opposite charges create an electric field between the two layers of the cell. When sunlight hits the cell, electrons are knocked free from the field which is how electricity is created.

Conductive plates along the sides or frame of the solar panel then capture theses electrons and conduct them through wires to power specific electrical goods or to be stored in batteries.

Solar Thermal System

Unlike Photovoltaic cells, thermal solar panels convert sunlight into heat and not electricity. These systems are therefore mainly used to heat water.

The solar panels contain a liquid (normally a solution of water and antifreeze) that is heated by the solar panel when the rays of the sun come into contact with the panels. This liquid is then transferred into an exchange unit which will transfer the heat to the tank holding water.

Once the liquid begins to cool, the liquid is simply transferred back to the thermal solar panel to be reheated in a never-ending cycle.

This technology is highly effective in sunny climates but has limited capabilities in colder climates which have less exposure to the sun’s radiation. However, they can still provide some measure of heating in these colder climes.

Concentrated Solar Power

This type of solar power is normally found in the form a solar plant. Mirrors are used to reflect and concentrate the rays of the sun to create much more power over a smaller area. These are normally used in industrial applications to drive engines and turbines.

Just like thermal solar panels, concentrated solar power (CSP) converts the sun’s radiation into heat rather than into electricity as with Photovoltaic cells. The heat is used to boil water which creates steam which is one of the oldest means of powering engines.

However, some CSP plants to convert solar energy into electricity that can be used or stored in order for a plant to be operational even at night.

For residential purposes, thermal solar power is the most popular option to save on power costs. Photovoltaic cells are however far more effective as they can be used to generate electricity to power different appliances and electric fixtures in the home. The ability to store photovoltaic energy also provides power at night and is far more effective in colder climates.