For most of us, aside from the electricians, technicians, and engineers who work with electricity every day, the currents that power so many of the things that we use on a daily basis is quite magical.
When everything is working correctly, we don’t even notice it. It’s silent, invisible, odorless, and can be accessed nearly anywhere in and around a building with just a cord and a plug. That’s a huge improvement over burning coal or oil for heat and light and energy, and because it’s so seamless and embedded in our lives, we think of it as being somehow clean (which it is, at least at the point of use).
We know that our electricity comes from the grid, where it is generated and managed by the utility company, and that we have a meter on the side of our house that displays how much we’re using (and which we pay a monthly bill for), and we probably understand that the electricity flows to our home across the wires, similar to the way our water flows to our home through the city water mains.
But most of us don’t really know where our electricity comes from or how it’s produced, unless we happen to live near a power station and ask a lot of questions. And the hard truth of the matter is that a lot of electricity is generated by power plants that burn coal (and lots of it) or natural gas, both of which are responsible for large amounts of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and other related environmental issues. Electricity isn’t nearly as clean as it might seem to the end user (us), unless your local utility is supplied by a hydropower plant, wind farm, or other renewable energy source.
So when it comes to understanding how solar panels work, they can seem even more like some kind of techno-magic to the average person, because there isn’t even a grid to point to and say “The electricity flows in from there…”
Somehow these rather innocuous looking glass-covered panels can turn sunlight into electricity, and by connecting a bunch of them into a larger rooftop solar array, enough electricity can be generated to power a home and an electric car, and maybe even enough to sell back to the local utility company to offset other energy costs. How can that even be possible? Isn’t that like some fringe science “free energy” machine scam?
The good news is that it’s totally possible, and you don’t have to understand how solar panels work to appreciate and benefit from a home solar array. And yes, it is like having a free energy machine, but it’s most definitely not some kind of sketchy perpetual motion energy device. Solar technology has a proven track record, and innovations in efficiencies and design have been bringing costs down year after year, so it’s more affordable than it’s ever been.
There is a cost, obviously, to initially install the solar panels, so it’s not exactly “free energy,” but once the home solar power system pays for itself in reduced electricity costs (which can be a lot quicker than you might think), solar panels will continue to produce clean electricity for decades to come, without any further costs or inputs, other than some very occasional light maintenance.
If you’re still eager to learn how solar panels work, and you want the highly condensed version, here’s a 6-second video summary from The Guardian of the photovoltaic effect that can produce electricity from the rays of the sun:
That was an incredibly simplistic explanation, but here’s a longer version of how solar panels work, in under a minute:
For a bit deeper of a look at how solar panels work on an atomic level, here’s a great explainer in under three minutes:
[Image: Cyferz at English Wikipedia under CC 3.0]
June 19, 2015
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