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How do solar panels work?

They convert sunlight into electricity — but how?

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    roof of suburban home with solar panels

    Considering going solar? It’s not just you. Solar energy is growing in popularity, with advances in production making panels less expensive and more practical for widespread use. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar energy use is projected to account for 20% of overall electricity production by 2050.

    Before you go solar, though, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with how the tech works. Read on for the most relevant details about solar panels and how they produce energy.

    Key insights

    • Residential solar panels use photovoltaic technology to absorb sunlight and convert it into usable power.
    • There are three main types of photovoltaic solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film.
    • These three types of solar panels are made out of silicon cells, which are able to absorb photons from the sun.

    How does solar energy work?

    Solar (or electromagnetic) radiation is light that comes from the sun. Solar panels capture this light and turn it into energy that can be used by household lights, appliances, air conditioning units and more.

    Solar panels used in residential settings are called photovoltaic (PV) solar panels.

    Here’s how PV panels work:

    1. The panels absorb light into individual PV cells.
    2. The silicon layers create an electric field. At the junction between the layers, one side has a negative charge, and the other’s positive. The electrons flow out of the junction and create an electric current.
    3. The current is sent through wires to a solar inverter, where it’s converted from DC to AC power so your home’s electrical system can use it.

    Often, solar panels produce more energy than a home can use. If there’s extra energy, it can be stored by a solar battery for later use during low-sun times like winter. The excess can be sold to your local electric company through net metering if you don’t have a battery.

    One thing to consider when choosing panels is whether you want a system that uses microinverters or string converters to produce energy. Microinverters make sense for most residential systems; they let you monitor each panel’s power production, among other benefits.

    A SunPower reviewer on our site said about their panels, for instance: “The performance of the SunPower system has been outstanding, especially due to the integrated microinverters that minimize shading losses. I would recommend Sunpower products to anyone without hesitation.”

    » MORE: Best solar panels in 2023

    How solar panels are made

    A solar panel is like a sandwich made of smaller sandwiches: On the outside, a metal frame houses layers of material. The first layer is usually glass or plastic to protect the smaller sandwiches inside. The smaller sandwiches are called cells and consist of two silicon layers with a junction area in the middle.

    Metal plates are added to each side of the solar cells to capture the electricity produced by the cells. The plates are connected to wires that send the electricity to an inverter.

    There are three types of PV solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film. The difference between them is how the silicon is used during production.

    • Monocrystalline panels are made from one sheet of pure silicon. They’re the most efficient of the three but a bit more expensive.
    • Polycrystalline panels are made from pieces of silicon. The production process is easier, making these panels more affordable. The silicon pieces hidden inside a sheet make these panels less efficient, though.
    • Thin-film panels use thin layers of noncrystalline silicon or other photon-absorbing material attached to a substrate. These are cheap to make, so they’re the most affordable option, but they’re also much less efficient. Thin-film panels aren’t recommended for residential power.

    » MORE: Types of solar panels

    Solar panel durability

    Solar panels are made to last decades. The average roof-mounted solar panel can last around 20 to 30 years. Many panels are made to withstand high winds, drenching rains and hail up to 1 inch in diameter.

    It’s important to know, though, that the efficiency you’re getting when the panel is new won’t be the same years down the road. Solar panels slowly lose efficiency as the years progress. Typically, newer panels lose around 0.2% to 0.3% efficiency per year.

    Solar panel pros and cons

    "Energy costs are at an all-time high, and by going solar, people can save money on their electricity bill now and, more importantly, protect themselves from future price increases,” Asim Hafeez, the president of Empower Energy Solutions, a renewable energy company in Connecticut, told us.

    There’s no doubt going solar is a great way to help the environment and lower your energy bills, but there are several things to consider before making the switch.

    Solar panel pros

    According to Hafeez, solar is great for saving so you can “pay off bills/debt, help contribute to [your] retirement or do more of the things [you] love (family dinners, date nights, vacations). Solar is the same electricity people are used to — just less expensive and better for the environment."

    • Solar power can lower electricity bills or completely eliminate them.
    • A solar home’s energy consumption puts less strain on the power grid, reducing the likelihood of brownouts and blackouts and having less negative environmental impact.
    • Installing solar can increase the value of your home.
    • Charging an electric vehicle (EV) with solar won’t significantly increase your electric bill.
    • You can benefit from tax credits or incentives by buying a solar energy system.

    Solar panel cons

    This technology helps create a more sustainable future, but there are some potential downsides:

    • Solar panel arrays can be expensive.
    • You may not get all your home’s power from solar — factors like trees around the home or the home getting little sun can prevent panels from providing enough electricity to meet your needs.
    • Unless you extend your warranty, you’re responsible for maintenance and repair costs, which may be expensive if a major component fails, according to Greg Fasullo, CEO of Elevation, a provider of clean energy and home efficiency solutions.
    • Depending on where you live, how your local utility credits your bill when you give excess solar energy back to the grid varies.

    » MORE: Solar energy pros and cons

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      Do solar panels save money?

      Eventually. Solar panels can take six to 10 years to pay for themselves, but after that, you might save the entirety of your electric bill.

      How much do solar panels cost?

      A solar energy system typically costs around $20,000 after the federal solar tax credit, but costs can range from $14,000 to $40,000 depending on your home’s needs.

      Can you build your own solar panels?

      Yes, technically you can build your own solar panels. There are many online tutorials that can guide you through the process, but it does take some electrical know-how.

      Do solar panels work at night?

      No, solar panels don’t collect light for energy at night. For nighttime power, home solar systems draw from a battery that stores excess solar power from the day or the power grid.

      Which solar panel type is the most efficient?

      Several newer solar panels have an efficiency rating over 21%, including the Maxeon Signature Black X Series and models from LONGi Solar.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page. Specific sources for this article include:
      1. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Solar generation was 3% of U.S. electricity in 2020, but we project it will be 20% by 2050.” Accessed March 11, 2023.
      2. U.S. Department of Energy, “How Does Solar Work?” Accessed March 11, 2023.
      3. U.S. Department of Energy, “Solar Photovoltaic Technology Basics.” Accessed March 11, 2023.
      4. U.S. Department of Energy, “Benefits of Residential Solar Electricity.” Accessed March 11, 2023.
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