How Solar Power Works to Make Electricity

May 1, 2012

For every person petitioning for conversion to solar power for heating and electricity, there are dozens of us scratching our heads, asking all the relevant questions about this supposedly clean, efficient, and generally usable energy source. You might find yourself wondering how solar power works, how difficult it is to put into effect, and basically whether it is in fact as good a source of electricity as some claim. There are lots of resources on the web where you can learn about solar power, but here are some of the basics to help you get started.

Harnessing Sunlight

As it turns out, the process for converting sunlight into electricity is surprisingly simple. The sun provides huge amounts of energy, much of which reaches our planet in the form of radiation known as visible light, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum you know and use every day.

When visible light hits most surfaces, usually two things happen:

  • Some part of the light is reflected, which makes it possible to see objects. A mirror is a good example of a primarily-reflective surface.
  • Some of the light is absorbed and converted to heat. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon on hot asphalt on a summer day.

Because light is a kind of energy, it can be absorbed and converted to heat when it strikes many substances. However, if it hits the right substance, visible light will be turned into electrical current.

how solar power works

Solar Cells

You’ve probably heard of and even seen solar panels before, but you may not have known how they do what they do. This part of the process is a little more tricky.

Solar cells are composed primarily of silicon, which acts as a semiconductor if it is ‘bundled’ or arranged in the right way. Semiconductors like this create an electromagnetic field which can help propel electrons if properly instigated by something like the energy from sunlight. If you’ve ever experimented with opposing ends of magnets, you have created magnetic fields and you can feel how the magnetic bodies attempt to balance by pulling towards each other at opposite polarities.

Silicon semiconductors function similarly. Pure silicon is inactive, but it can be charged by introducing a new element. If phosphorous is added, the atoms arrange with an extra electron, thus creating a negative charge, and electricity that wants to jump to a positive source if excited. If boron is added, the silicon structure will form without an electron, making a net negative charge. When you put n-type (negative) silicon in contact with the right amount of p-type (positive) silicon, you have essentially created a solar cell.

If you link enough of these solar cells together in a place where they can absorb solar energy, you will have made a solar panel which will create enough energy to power a house or even a satellite orbiting around the earth.

Installing Solar Panels

Obviously, you can’t just put panels on your roof and expect them to power your home; you need to hook up your home’s electrical wiring with the solar panels to use the electrical output. Though it is possible to install solar panels yourself, it is probably best to hire someone with electrician training. If you are interested in doing home solar panel installation yourself, find out what it would take to earn your electrician degree and become licensed yourself.

Living with Solar Power

According to many testimonies, the conversion to solar heating pays for itself quickly, is an efficient and long-lasting way of powering a home, and produces no carbon dioxide or other environmental toxins. And, yes, if you have a battery grid which can hold the charge absorbed during the day, your solar panels will still work at night. So if you were wondering how solar power works and if it’s right for you, hopefully we provided enough information to help you out!


How Stuff Works – Photovoltaic Cells: Converting Photons to Electrons

Scientific American – How Does Solar Power Work? – Solar Power FAQs

Solar Energy image from BigStock

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