How solar power works

Solar is the obvious choice. When you think about it, the ability to make electrical power from sunlight is a marvellous process.

Solar energy

Electricity generated via a solar power system s 100% carbon free, renewable, clean, and silent. Solar panels themselves are highly durable, with standard life-spans of 25 years +.

And how much nicer is it to flick on a light switch at home, or cook a meal, knowing that just like a natural, plant-based ecosystem, you’ve harnessed the power of sunlight to make it happen.

It makes the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity seem like an old dirty habit.

Power from solar photovoltaics: What’s its history?

As far back as 1839, a 19-year-old Frenchman called Edmund Becquerel, discovered what is called the photovoltaic effect, the physics behind the solar cell, while experimenting with a couple of metal electrodes. His process was refined over the following decades by pioneering scientists, and in 1923 Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for his theories explaining the photoelectric effect.

In the early 1950s the first uses were made of the photovoltaic cell, sometimes referred to as PV cells. These cells are produced from extremely thin wafers of silicon. These are the types of solar panels that you hear about most frequently these days.

Solar energy has come a very long way since 1958 when the first solar powered satellite was launched. With the recent advent of nanotechnologies, the efficiencies of the PV cell are now many times what they used to be. Now it takes far less roof space, and far less expense, to fully solar power an average home.

Solar Panels and Solar Power: How does it work for you?

When sunlight hits these cells, electrons are shaken free and move around. Electrons are the negatively charged particles that sit around the nucleus of an atom (the nucleus consists of protons and neutrons). An electric current is simply the movement or flow of electrons in the same direction. A bolt of lightning, for example, is a sudden surge of electrons across a build-up of charge within clouds, or between clouds and the ground.

If you place a group of these PV cells together in a panel, and install a number of panels side by side, you can create a flow of electrons and DC electricity. The electricity used in households, however, is AC 240 volts. Therefore a box called a solar inverter – usually no bigger than your average shopping basket – is used to convert the DC electricity to AC so it can be used immediately by occupants and the electricity grid.

It is important to remember that even an overcast or rainy day is sufficient to generate some solar power, although obviously significantly less than if your panels were basking in broad sunshine. If shading could potentially be an issue, or if you need to split the array on a roof which faces different directions, try to maximise the output of your system by using an inverter that can take multiple inputs. In any solar panel ‘string’, where the panels are in series, the weakest panel pulls all other panels on the same wire down to its level. This means that if even one panel is shaded, all other panels may as well be in the shade. Separate strings of panels wired to the inverter enables you to mitigate the effects of this problem.

Grid-connected solar power systems are generally very low-maintenance. Besides the occasional cleaning and regular health-check, solar panels should last you for decades.

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