Every day, more people opt into the cleaner option for powering their homes. Prices for solar systems have come down because of solar technology advances. As a result, you may have some questions arising. How does solar power work? Is it safe? Is it cost-effective? We’ll address these questions and more here.
How Does Solar Power Work? A Moment to Define Scientific Vocabulary
It can be hard to discuss how solar power works without a refresher of some scientific definitions. We scoured the internet for the simplest definitions we could find without going into a full-fledged physics lesson. So, here we go.
Atoms: These are the building blocks of all matter. Atoms are made up of three particles: protons, neutrons, electrons.
Electrons: Tiny, negatively charged particles within the atom.
Photons: Particles of light and heat (for example, rays of sunlight contain photons).
Photovoltaic: Something is photovoltaic if it changes the sun’s rays into electrical energy.
Transforming Sunlight into Electricity
Solar panels consist of multiple modules, or cells, depending on the size of the panel. Their job is to generate electricity by separating electrons from atoms. According to LiveScience, each cell “is basically a sandwich made up of two slices of semiconducting material, usually silicon.”
After the manufacturers prepare the “sandwich” with other materials, it has a positive and negative charge on either side. When a photon hits the “sandwich,” it knocks electrons away from the atoms in the photons. That generates the flow of electricity. This is the basis to the first question we discussed, “How does solar power work?”.
“Metal conductive plates on the sides of the cell collect the electrons and transfer them to wires,” says LiveScience. “At that point, the electrons can flow like any other source of electricity.”
Not All Solar Systems are Alike
Humans have been using the sun for energy for hundreds of years. At first, it was used to dry clothes, stay warm, and even cook food. Today, we use the sun to power all that and more.
For example, we use solar to recharge our phones, and power a variety of engines. Business owners often rely on solar energy to power their businesses. Owners of large factories and food trucks, alike, turn to solar for their business. Although, those solar systems vary widely in size.
As we mentioned above, manufacturers put several cells, which are photovoltaic, into a solar panel. What’s more is they use several sizes and shapes of solar panels when planning a solar system. All you need is a roof to hold an adequate number of solar panels for your specific needs.
Concentrating Solar-Thermal Power
We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss concentrating solar-thermal power here. It’s another important way to respond to the question, “How does solar power work?”. Concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) systems rely on mirrors instead of solar panels.
The U.S. Department of Energy explains, “CSP systems use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat, which can then be used to produce electricity or stored for later use. It is used primarily in very large power plants.” Homes generally use photovoltaic panels instead of CSP.
Is Solar Power Safe?
Not only is solar energy safe, but it’s also good for you and the environment! Today, most of our electricity comes from an unsafe source. That source is the same source we’ve been using since the discovery of electricity: fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are scarce. Experts suggest that they will be gone forever in the next couple of decades. That’s certainly in this lifetime for most of us. Furthermore, the use of fossil fuels produces dangerous consequences.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says, “Burning fossil fuels emits a number of air pollutants that are harmful to both the environment and public health.” Whereas, solar energy is clean, produces safer jobs, and is limitless. In other words, solar power is renewable. We’ll never run out of clean solar power.
Is Solar Power Cost-Effective?
How does solar power work if it’s not cost-effective? It really doesn’t. Although it makes sense to go solar, it’s not a fool-proof reason. In fact, most American families are financially motivated. Here’s some good news: As research and technology advance, prices for the panels, as well as installation, have gone down significantly during the last few years.
The U.S. Department of Energy confirms this saying, “Financial returns and lower monthly utility bills are major incentives for going solar.” The following is a list of components that determine your specific savings:
- Electricity consumption
- Solar system size
- Whether you purchase or lease your system
- Number of daily hours with direct sunlight
- Size and angle of roof
- Local electricity rates
Solar companies design systems that generate just enough electricity for your household usage. Furthermore, tax incentives and other financial benefits make going solar even more cost-effective.