The popularity of solar panels has grown exponentially over the last several years, thanks to financial incentives and the ever-improving efficiency of the technology,
But as they become a part of everyday life, many are left to wonder: how exactly does solar power work.
It’s a reasonable question with an interesting answer. But first, let’s take a brief look at the evolution of the technology to better understand how we arrived at the present.
The Origin of Solar Panels
How old would you guess solar panels are? A few decades, at most? Well, the answer may surprise you.
The first modern, commercial solar panel was produced in 1954 by researchers at Bell Labs. It boasted an efficiency of 4%. with later iterations reaching a whopping 11%. But the technology behind it is even older.
The first solar cell, the unit on a solar panel that absorbs sunlight and converts them into energy, was invented way back in 1883 by New York inventor Charles Fritts.
But even before that, inventors had tinkered with sun-powered contraptions. In the 1860s, French mathematician Augustin Mouchot filed patents for solar-powered engines. He followed those up with a solar-powered printing press about a decade later.
But these inventions would have been impossible without the discovery of the photovoltaic effect.
So How Does Solar Power Work?
Discovered in 1839 by physicist Edmond Becquerel, the photovoltaic effect is the beginning of solar power as we know it. It’s the ability to generate electricity from sunlight directly. Other solar technologies rely on the sun’s heat to change the temperature of air or water.
The potential of the photovoltaic effect wouldn’t be reached until the discovery of the element silicon’s photoconductive properties in 1954. Silicon is a semi-conductor, meaning it can either conduct or insulate electrons, depending on the situation.
By making cells from layered, ultra-thin strips of silicon-bonded with the elements boron and phosphorus, Bell Lab’s researchers were able to create the first practical cells capable of powering an electrical device for several hours.
Our modern solar cells are basically more efficient reiterations of that development.
A 21st-century solar cell will have a base made of conductive metal, two layers of different types of silicon strips on top of that, then a pair of conductive metal contact points, and finally a protective glass shield. Build a few dozen more of those, and you have the average solar panel.
Modern panels have an efficiency of 11-15%, representing the amount of solar energy converted into electricity. But they continue to grow more powerful and less expensive. It’s to the point where any homeowner interested in cutting their energy bill only needs to look up “solar providers near me“.
And as the technology grows in popularity, we can expect it to become more vital to our overall energy economy.
The Future Is Home Solar Power
As time goes by, we can expect solar panels to meet more and more of our daily energy needs. The technology always improving, and continued reliance on fossil fuels is untenable.
Understanding how do solar panels work helps us to appreciate the technology’s elegance. Especially when compared to our current energy infrastructure.
But even with solar power’s untapped potential, we will still need to rely on a mix of other energy sources for the time being. To stay up to date on the evolving energy landscape, be sure to keep up with all of our latest tech news and views.