Solar power is one of the big three in producing clean and renewable energy, with the other two being wind and biomass based fuels. Solar power is technically the reason why the entire biomass even exists, so solar power should get some credit there too. Solar power is nothing new, with the first solar battery and panel being introduced in the early 1900s. Solar power has long supplemented our electricity, but until the demand for clean and renewable energy skyrocketed it wasn’t widely used. Solar energy now powers homes, businesses and even military bases.
But how does it work?
The sun shines and bam – we get electricity! isn’t really an acceptable answer. To understand how solar power works you have to understand there is significant equipment involved in the process. These systems are known as solar photovoltaic systems, or for brevity’s sake they are more commonly known as solar PV systems. These systems are made from a variety of components, each one being critical to solar absorption and power. These systems are comprised of the standard solar panels and mounting systems we’ve all seen, solar inverters and the proper wire cords and cables to make it all work.
Once assembled with everything installed and in place, the solar panels will begin harnessing the light emitted by the sun. The inverter and panels will convert it into electricity, and this electricity then has the ability to power most electrical devices. This includes lights, air conditioners, appliances, and even some larger appliances like fridges can now be powered by solar energy. Solar power from the sun to the panel is easy to explain, but what the panel, inverter, and wires, cables and cords do is a little more complicated.
We’ll start with the mounting system, the simplest portion of the setup, but it is extremely important. Without the mounting system, you won’t get far on just leaning the solar panels against a wall, or laying them on the ground. Mounting systems consist of several different sized brackets that act as a skeleton to hold the entire system up. There are a few different options for mounting solar panels. Typically on a home based system, the solar panels are going to be mounted on the roof, and match the roof’s incline and decline.
The roof has the greatest access to sunlight in most conditions and in most places. Some rural environments may be under near-constant shade, which makes it less efficient to absorb sunlight. These folks may prefer a ground based system, or mounting the panels of poles. Pole panels are restricted in size but are an option for simple tasks. Regardless of where the panel is mounted, the mounts should hold the panel in a way that gives the most access to the sun. This typically means the closest it can be at a 90-degree angle with the sun.
The last kind of mounts are for industrial use, and for power utility companies. These are massive ground mounted systems that can include a variety of different styles of mounts. This includes pole mounts, foundation mounts, and ballasted footing mounts. These systems are often used as solar farms, covering lots of ground to harvest as much sun as possible. These mounting systems are in widespread use throughout the military and provide tons of energy for bases around the world. The most dynamic of mounts can rotate and move to capture the sun as it changes position, but these systems are expensive and not in use on a widespread basis.
Solar panels are something everyone recognizes by now. They are the most apparent component of the Solar PV system. Solar panels come in nearly any size you can imagine, and can be small enough to fit in the pocket, or large enough to power a home. Solar panels are what you often see on the roof of homes and businesses, or perhaps you’ve driven by a field of odd squares seemingly worshiping the sun. It’s hard to say which part of a solar PV system is the most important since a system missing even one component is useless. With that said it’s hard not to consider solar panels to most important portion. They literally do all the work.
Solar panels are actually groups of solar cells that are wired together and trapped behind a glass casing for elemental protection. These cells all work together to absorb the sun’s radiation within the panel. Solar cells are made from materials like silicon and is placed between positive and negative charges. When sunlight hits the panel the photons start dancing around and knock electrons free from the silicon. When this starts you get a flow of electricity. Next, there are metal plates on the sides of the cell, these plates collect those electrons and that flow of electricity and transfer them to the inverter through the cables, cords, and wires.
Another critical component of Solar PV systems is the inverter. The inverter acts as the middle man between your home, and the solar energy the panels are absorbing. That flow of electricity is a direct current power, direct current is really compatible with most appliances, lighting systems, or much of anything.
To become alternating current it must pass through an inverter. As with any inverter you are going to lose electricity through the conversion process, however, with a good solar inverter you’ll lose 5% or less.
Wires, cables and cords.
The last part of a solar PV system is wires, cables and cords that tie it all together. This acts as roads and bridges to get the electricity where it needs to go. These cables are specifically designed for solar systems, and can withstand extreme temperatures, nature, and of course sunlight. These cables run from the panel to the inverter and into your home. This cables need to be solar capable, which means they can withstand the temperature of a solar load.
Like all systems, a solar PV system has to work together for success. If you take away one element the system simply can’t work. The Solar PV systems are quickly becoming more and more common, so if you find yourself troubleshooting one it’s good to know a little about what you’re dealing with.