How Solar Power Works
Like a lot of things in our lives, we take electricity for granted. Most of us don’t think about how a car works, how a plane flies, or how our electronics work. We don’t think about how power plants produce the power that make our phones, lights, and appliances work.
That’s even more true for solar power. It’s not something that is intuitive and obvious. How do a few black rectangles on your roof make your lights turn on?
The type of solar power you might have at your home is called photovoltaic. This means a substance, usually silicon, is being used that can convert sunlight into power directly. It is silicon itself, and the properties of it, that make photovoltaic power production possible.
Photons in sunlight hit the silicon in the solar cell, which knocks lose some of electrons in the silicon, which then move from one atom to another. The current from these moving electrons is then harnessed by the solar cell to create electricity. What we refer to as a solar panel is an array of these solar cells.
The electricity that an array produces is direct current (DC) power. For most things in your house, this isn’t super helpful. In order to be used in your household appliances and lights, that power has to be converted from DC into AC (alternating current) electricity. This is accomplished in a current inverter, which is part of the equipment that would be installed when you had panels mounted on your house.
Source: Creative Commons
Into the house
From there, the electricity is sent to your fuse box. That’s the point at which your house puts the power to work, doing everything in your house you need electricity for: lights, appliances, charging devices, etc.
The fuse box is also the point at which the power can be redirected into a battery, if your house has one. The idea behind the battery is to store some power that you have produced and hold onto it locally so that it can be used independently of the electrical grid at large.
Whatever electricity remains after powering the electronics in your house and/or being funneled into a battery is then sent to your power meter, where it is measured. In effect, the power you’re producing can either reduce the speed at which your meter racks up your power charges, or could even roll it backwards.
What happens if the amount of power being sent through the meter into the electrical grid is more than the amount your house has drawn from the grid depends upon your power company. Usually you are given a credit toward any power you may draw later, or it may even be bought from you.
On a larger scale
This photovoltaic process is used in places other than homes and businesses, as well. A solar power plant can consist of a large wide open area covered with solar panels.
There is another type of solar power plant, though, one which uses sunlight in a completely different way. It’s called concentrated solar power. Like the name suggests, the plant concentrates sunlight using mirrors and/or lenses, creating heat. The heat is then used to turn a turbine, which more closely resembles other types of power generation. (For example, hydroelectric power is produced when water is used to turn a turbine.)
Get used to it
Both types of solar power are revolutionizing how electricity is produced. The technologies have improved to the point that in many parts of the world, solar power is less expensive than other types of power.
Hopefully this gave you some idea of how solar power works because the fact is you’re going to be seeing more and more of it as time passes.