How Does Solar Energy Really Work?

January 20, 2020

By Mikella Marley, WindSolarUSA

It’s true that sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. When you think about solar energy abstractly, it certainly fits that bill: light from the sun is collected by flat panels and magically converted to energy that you can use to turn on your lights, or power your refrigerator.

Of course, the reality is that this technology isn’t magic at all, and it’s not even as complicated as you might imagine. 

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that all light contains energy. When you get hot while sitting outside in the sun, it’s a result of that light’s energy. Now, imagine that instead of you sitting under the sun, it’s a panel with special technology that can convert that energy into electricity. 

Therein lies the basis for solar energy: the sun will continue to shine its light all over the planet day after day, so strategically placing panels to collect that limitless resource is basically a no-brainer. 

What sort of special technology do those panels use that allows them to convert the sun’s light into electricity, though? Crystals.

That’s right—every type of solar panel in existence uses some sort of crystal (whether it be silicon [which is the most efficient] or “thin film” [which is the less expensive option]) to produce electricity. 

Basically, when sunlight hits these crystals, they produce an electrical current. This happens because the crystal’s electrons move around rapidly, generating electricity rather than merely producing heat. 

Once the electricity has been generated, it is fed into an inverter which converts the energy into AC electricity (the form suitable for residential consumption). After that, the electricity a system has produced from the sun is ready to be used in the home. This technology also allows for excess energy produced by a solar energy system to be fed back onto the electrical grid.  

To summarize, here’s a simplified step-by-step version of how solar energy works that you can use to explain the concept to kids:

  1. First, the sun sends its light to Earth. This light (like all light) contains energy.
  2. Next, that sunlight hits solar panels. The panels have been specially placed to collect as much light as possible. 
  3. Inside the panels, crystals absorb the sunlight. The electrons in those crystals get excited and begin bouncing around, producing electricity.
  4. The electricity produced by those crystals travels to an inverter, where it is converted to the kind of power that houses use. 
  5. Finally, that power is fed into the home to power everything from televisions to ceiling fans. 

The idea of solar energy may feel a little difficult to digest, but when you boil it down it’s simply a creative use of basic scientific principles. The sun will keep on shining day after day; solar energy just puts that light to use in the home.

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