What are solar panels?

Shining light on clean electricity

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    builder on top of a structure covered with solar panels

    Imagine tapping into the sun’s energy to power your home, slash your electricity bills and make a positive impact on our environment. Solar panels have skyrocketed in popularity, emerging as a pivotal player in renewable energy. With the pressing need for sustainable solutions, solar panels offer an increasingly appealing and practical option.

    In this article, We'll delve into what solar panels are, how they work and whether they're the right choice for your energy needs.

    Key insights

    • Solar panels harness solar power and convert it to electricity through the photovoltaic effect. They offer a reliable and abundant source of power by capturing and utilizing energy from sunlight.
    • Solar panels offer numerous benefits — they reduce carbon emissions, decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, help save on electricity bills and potentially increase property value.
    • It’s a good idea to consult with professionals or conduct a feasibility assessment to determine the viability of solar panels in your area.

    Understanding what solar panels are

    Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic (PV) panels, are devices that harness solar power and convert it into electricity. These panels are typically composed of individual solar cells, mostly made of silicon. By capturing and utilizing the energy from sunlight, solar panels offer a reliable and abundant source of power.

    Solar panels come in different types, including monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film panels. Typically, solar panels have a protective layer of tempered glass, ensuring durability and shielding the cells from external elements.

    » COMPARE: Monocrystalline vs. polycrystalline solar panels

    Solar panels are typically installed on rooftops or in open spaces to capture maximum sunlight. Proper positioning at an optimal angle and direction helps ensure consistent exposure throughout the day. Solar panels can also be connected to the electricity grid through net metering, which means any surplus electricity generated is fed back into the grid.

    How solar panels work

    Solar panels work by harnessing solar energy through a process called the photovoltaic effect. When sunlight strikes the solar cells, it excites tiny particles called electrons, causing them to break free from their atoms. This creates a flow of electrons, generating an electric current.

    The electric field within the solar cells then guides the freed electrons in a specific direction, creating a usable current. However, the electricity produced by the solar panels is in the form of direct current (DC), which is not compatible with standard electrical systems used in homes. To make it compatible, an inverter is used to convert the DC electricity we use to power our devices and appliances.

    » MORE: How do solar panels work?

    Do solar panels make sense for you?

    Solar panels offer several obvious benefits, but they also require some consideration.

    Benefits of solar panels

    Solar panels offer a range of compelling environmental and cost benefits. If your living situation makes sense and you can afford the upfront costs, going solar might be for you.

    Environmental impact

    Solar panels help decrease carbon emissions, aiding in the fight against climate change and promoting cleaner air. According to the Office of Nuclear Energy, the use of solar power helped avoid 45 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019. By reducing reliance on fossil fuels, solar panels foster a sustainable energy mix, contributing to a greener future.

    » MORE: Greenest states in the U.S.

    Cost savings

    By generating your own electricity, you can significantly reduce your electricity bills. Additionally, government incentives or tax credits may be available to offset the initial installation costs.

    Long life span and minimal maintenance

    With proper care and maintenance, solar panels can generate clean electricity for decades, making them a long-lasting and eco-friendly energy source for homeowners. Their durable construction and minimal maintenance requirements ensure hassle-free operation and peace of mind.

    Increased home value

    Installing solar panels can have a positive impact on your home's value. According to Zillow, homes equipped with solar panels typically sell for an average of 4.1% more than comparable homes without solar panels.

    This increase in value is due to the potential long-term cost savings and environmental advantages that come with solar energy. By having solar panels, your property becomes more appealing in the real estate market, attracting environmentally conscious buyers seeking sustainable and energy-efficient homes.

    » MORE: Do solar panels increase home value?


    Before you make the decision to purchase solar panels, it’s important to weigh the following considerations.

    Location dependence

    Areas with plenty of sunlight are more suitable for solar energy generation, so it's important to assess your location's solar potential. Keep in mind that trees or any obstructions around the home can block sunlight and reduce the output of your solar panels.

    Solar systems require a significant amount of space for installation and optimal functionality. In areas with limited space (e.g., in the middle of a big city), it may be challenging to find sufficient roof space for all the solar panels needed to power your entire house. You can use EnergySage’s solar calculator to estimate your solar potential and savings by address.

    Once you’ve started working with a solar company, its reps can confirm how many panels you need. A reviewer from California on our site said the person they worked with “was pleasant to work with and I am glad that he was not a pushy salesman. ... He was able to explain how many solar panels were adequate and sufficient for our house and the future electric usage.”

    Return on investment

    Investing in solar panel installations may require an initial upfront investment, but the long-term cost savings can be significant. Various factors, including installation costs, energy usage and available incentives, play a big role in determining the average payback period.

    EnergySage reports that, on average, it takes approximately 8.7 years to recoup the initial investment on solar panel installation (through savings on energy bills). By considering the potential long-term benefits and payback period, you can make an informed decision regarding the financial viability of installing solar panels.

    » MORE: How much do solar panels cost?

    Inability to move with you

    Once you install a solar energy system, it’s typically challenging — if not impossible — to transport. While it’s theoretically possible to transfer PV solar panels when moving to a new home, it’s rarely advised. Dismantling and retrofitting the system to a new property can cause extensive damage to the panels and the roof.

    Leaving the solar panel system in place can also increase the value of the house, potentially helping to recover most of the cost if you leave it for the next owners.

    Limitations of area coverage

    It's also important to consider the coverage area of solar energy companies. Some companies service only specific geographic regions or states, which could limit your options if you live outside their coverage area.

    It’s advisable to consult with a professional installer or conduct a feasibility assessment. This can help you determine the viability of solar panel installation for your specific location and provide valuable insights into the potential benefits and considerations associated with the investment.

    » DECIDE: Are solar panels worth it?

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      What is the life span of solar panels?

      The life span of most solar panels ranges from 25 to 30 years, although the actual duration may vary based on environmental factors, panel type and the rate of material degradation over time.

      » MORE: How long do solar panels last?

      How much maintenance do solar panels require?

      Solar panels only require minor maintenance, like light cleaning, about two to four times a year.

      Can solar panels generate electricity on cloudy days?

      Yes, solar panels can still generate some electricity during cloudy days, but at a reduced rate.

      Are all solar panels made the same?

      Not all solar panels are made the same. There are a few different types of solar panels, which vary in material, efficiency and life span. And, as with any manufactured product, some panels can be defective, causing issues down the line.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
      1. Department of Energy, “Carbon Dioxide Emissions Avoided by Energy Source - 2019.” Accessed June 7, 2023.
      2. Zillow, “Homes with Solar Panels Sell for 4.1% More.” Accessed June 7, 2023.
      3. EnergySage, “Solar Calculator.” Accessed June 7, 2023.
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