How Does Solar Power Work?

While the sun has been burning brightly for 4.6 billion years, solar technology has taken off only recently. Scientists first demonstrated a working silicon solar cell in 1954 – the foundation for modern solar technology. Advances in solar power technology have since led sunlight to become an ideal power source. It is renewable, unlimited, and it produces clean electricity.

Image of the sun's flares.

If you’d like to learn more about how solar power works and how the technology has advanced from the first, 6-percent-efficient cells, to today’s cells, reaching more than 40 percent efficiency, read on. If you’re already a solar expert, visit our website to see how Kinect Solar can improve your solar experience.

Solar power basics

Solar power cells collect sunlight and convert it into electricity by displacing photons. This process is called the photovoltaic effect or photoelectric effect. Photovoltaics (PV) were discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel as he experimented with cells, conducting solution, and metal electrodes. This was the world’s first foray into solar power systems.

More than 100 years later, scientists at Bell Laboratories developed crystalline silicon cells (the  previously mentioned 1954 discovery). Those early silicon cells were sufficient to power everyday, smaller electronics. However, early silicon cell prototypes were expensive ($286/watt!) and reached only 4.5-6 percent efficiency. Today, the mechanics to harness the sun’s power are the same, but efficiency and cost have greatly improved.

Modern solar panels (or modules) are made from silicon cells and are a good example of PV technology. Multiple solar cells are housed inside glass panels and as the sunlight hits the solar panel, electrons are displaced from the silicon atoms. These electrons create a direct electric current (DC). Solar panels are usually connected to devices called inverters that convert DC to AC (alternating current), which is the kind of power most homes and appliances use.

Image of a photon.
Close up of pink atomic particle background science 3D illustration

An arrangement of multiple, connected solar panels is called an array. Arrays can be only a few panels – such as on a residential rooftop – or many panels – such as a commercial solar farm. The scalability of solar power allows the technology to accommodate a wide range of power needs: from residential and commercial solar systems to utility-scale solar farms.

Most solar panel systems are connected to the electrical grid to allow homeowners and businesses to seamlessly transfer between the solar energy produced by their solar system and power from the electric utility. Having access to both power sources prevents a loss of power when the sun is not shining and, in many cases, allows the owner of the solar system to send excess power from the system back to the utility for bill credit.

Solar-thermal technology

Where PV can convert sunlight (photons) into electricity, solar-thermal technology converts solar energy into heat. Concentrated solar thermal (CST) power is also known as concentrated solar power (CSP). Simply put, CSP uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto a single point. This concentration allows the system to capture high-temperature heat. The heat is converted to steam, which powers a turbine to produce electricity.

An advantage of CSP is that it can store energy for later use through thermal energy storage (TES). Thanks to TES, you can use CSP when the sun isn’t shining. PV systems cannot store electricity without solar batteries, but they do have the advantage of being more flexible in size. Effective CSP systems require a lot of space. Because of this, CSP is often the preferred option for large-scale power operations while PV is often used for smaller-scale systems. 

Image of photovoltaic panels.

Solar cell and panel types

Silicon PV cells continue to dominate the solar industry due to their efficacy and affordability. However, thin-film technologies are also commonly used today and possibilities for next-generation solar cells are constantly being explored. Here’s a quick rundown of solar module types:

  • Monocrystalline silicon: The most efficient for PV systems, these solar cells are cut from a single silicon crystal.
  • Polycrystalline silicon: These cells are less efficient but usually cheaper than their monocrystalline counterparts. They are made from fragmented silicon crystals that have been melted together.
  • Bi-facial: These solar panels also use monocrystalline silicon, but are double-sided to maximize energy production per square foot. They are heavy, and thus not suitable for all applications, but they are the most efficient PV panels.
  • Thin-film solar cells: These cells are inexpensive, lightweight, and flexible. Though generally less efficient, thin-film’s mobility makes it an excellent option for portable systems or when aesthetics are important. They can be made from a variety of materials:
    • Amorphous Silicon (a-Si)
    • Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)
    • Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS)
  • Next-generation solar cells: Some of the technology currently being explored includes perovskite-based solar cells and iii-v cells. These aren’t yet practical for industry use.

No matter which type of solar module is used, solar power systems require the same basic additional components including breakers, cables, switches, inverters, energy meters (for grid-connected systems), and sometimes solar batteries for energy storage.

Solar power technology has become more fine-tuned and wide-spread since its components were first discovered. However, it’s not the finish line yet. Solar technology is constantly evolving as we learn more and deploy more solar power projects.

Kinect Solar is here to guide you

If you’d like to learn more about the solar industry, how solar panels work, and what solar power can do for you, Kinect Solar can provide you with resources and solar solutions. We offer exceptional and comprehensive solar power installation services at affordable prices.

If you’re looking to buy, sell, ship, or store solar panels and solar technology, you’ve come to the right place. Find practical solutions to supply-chain issues in the solar industry by partnering with our solar experts. We work with our partners to optimize your solar business and provide solutions at whatever level you need. Contact our solar experts today!