A Guide For Dummies On How Solar Panels Work

Are you in the dark when it comes to understanding solar power and how panels work? No need to worry; this article will provide all the crucial details. From how it works and what you can power with this energy to accompanying benefits — no stone will go unturned.

There’s no denying that people understood the value of solar power long ago, and over the years, the interest — along with the solar panels’ capacity — only increased.

According to Statista, from 2015 to 2021, the capacity increased to 167.8 gigawatts; according to forecasts, by 2026, the power indicator may increase by about the same value.

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Source: Statista

So without further ado, let’s examine what solar panels are and how they work, the essential elements of a panel, and the benefits solar power provides.

What Is Energy From the Sun?

If we consider this issue in the context of renewable energy sources, then sunlight is one of them. The Sun emits a certain range of rays that reach the Earth, and solar cells are the elements that capture them and convert them into electricity so that it can be used to power various systems.

These can be devices for air conditioning, security lighting, pond aeration, water pumping, charging gadgets, etc. Indicators of volumes and power of electricity generated from sunlight directly depend on the type and features of the installations. 

Currently, technologies of this type are labeled “PV,” which means photovoltaic or solar electric installation. This description gives a concise understanding of what solar panels do.

But it doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to learn here, so let’s move on to the good old photoelectric effect. If you’re wondering what it means, read on to find out more about this process.

The Wonder of the Photoelectric Effect

Here’s the thing: learning about this process is crucial to understand how a solar panel works. At the heart of any solar battery is a phenomenon called the “photoelectric effect.” Here’s how it works and what it entails:

  1. When the sun’s rays fall on the surface of the metal, electrons are thrown out of them. They are called “photoelectrons.” 
  2. An important nuance in this process is the frequency of light that falls on metal surfaces. It’s the kinetic energy that the photoelectrons ejected from the metal are endowed with.
  3. This process is usually called “photoemission.” That’s how the emission of photoelectrons under the influence of sunlight from metal is denoted.
  4. This movement of particles happens because they can absorb the energy from sunlight. It allows to overcome the force of gravity, which attracts electrons to the nucleus. 
  5. Et voilà! That’s the technology used in solar panels.

Now, a small digression into the history: E. Becquerel noticed the photoelectric effect for the first time in 1839. The physicist discovered that some types of metals could generate a small current under the influence of light. After that, other scientists began to study the effect. That led to the fact that already in the 60s, the first similar designs were in use on spaceships. Further device improvement contributed to the first solar power systems’ appearance.

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How Do Solar Cells Work?

After explaining the photo effect, we can get into the nitty-gritty of the operational principle. Modern solar installations consist of several individual elements of the photovoltaic type. It means that each of them can convert the energy of the sun’s rays into an electric current. That’s possible because semiconductor materials are in use for the manufacture of elements (cells).

Most often, it’s silicon. Metal can serve as a conductor of electricity and simultaneously ensure the creation of an electric field (due to the preservation of electrical imbalance). When the sun’s rays fall on it, the energy in photons is transferred to the semiconductor. 

Simultaneously with this reaction, several electrons are emitted, and they do not disappear anywhere but only move freely within the limits of one cell.

Specially charged semiconductors with a negative and positive charge ensure the creation of such an electric field. They are squeezed into one space, so they ensure the existence of a favorable environment for electrical imbalance. This imbalance is the driving force that stimulates the electrons in the cells to move in a specific direction simultaneously.

That is, they move directly from the grid to plates made of conductive metals.These elements are located throughout the cell, so the sun’s energy is quickly converted into electricity. The amount of electricity produced in this way directly depends on the current strength, and its value is related to the amount of sunlight falling on the semiconductor.

As for the current generated in the cells of the solar battery, it passes from the metal plates into the wires. Then to the inverters, electrical panel, devices, and systems. In addition, it is important to understand the current type generated by photovoltaic cells. Solar cells provide direct current (called “DC”) generation. However, it is not suitable for daily use in buildings.

Consumers need alternating current (referred to as “AC”). That is why inverters are installed on solar panels. These elements convert direct current into alternating current, suitable for household use. First, it goes from the inverter to the electrical panel and then is distributed among the devices that are connected to the network. On the image below, you can see the “How Do Solar Panels Work?” diagram.

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Source: Briggs Agency Inc.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar panels are one of the types of solar batteries. They are presented as a set of several photocells united by a frame. They have a large enough area and can be installed in different places. It can be houses, office buildings, and even plots near them. It’s enough to remember the principle of operation of solar batteries to find out what solar panels are and how they work. It involves the following stages:

  • Creating an electric field: Sunlight hits the photocells in the solar panel, and then they eject electrons.
  • The direction of electrons: Due to the placement of oppositely charged semiconductors, the electrons start moving toward the metal plates.
  • Transfer of current to the wires: Metal plates are placed throughout the cell, through which electrons pass to the wires.
  • Conversion of direct voltage into alternating current: The process occurs thanks to the inverter.

The generated alternating current from the inverter passes through the wires to the electrical panel. It is where it is distributed when there is a need to connect a device.

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Source: ResearchGate

What Are Solar Cells Made Of?

The most common devices that ensure solar energy conversion into electricity consist of several parts. Before getting acquainted with them, the type of materials is worth mentioning. The basis of solar panels is silicon. In addition, there is a lot of glass, copper, and aluminum in the composition of installations. These materials are recyclable, which is extremely important for sustainable ecological development.

That’s confirmed by a study presented on MarketWatch. It states that most of the materials (about 90-97%) of which solar cells are made can be recycled. The direct construction of these devices consists of several elements, and here are the main ones:


Photocells are needed to make solar panels work. This component is presented in the form of panels or small batteries. They can have different sizes and shapes, but the principle of their functioning is the same. The panels (or batteries) are the backbone of the installation and have the highest cost of all the elements.

Equipment Installation

Solar panels’ effectiveness depends on the installation’s correctness to some extent. Therefore, this stage is extremely important. Special equipment helps simplify the process and install the unit properly in a well-lit area.


For the full operation of solar panels, tracking mounts are also necessary. These elements ensure the movement of photovoltaic devices during the day. The movement of the devices is essential so that they are always directed toward the sun.

It can have uniaxial and biaxial trekking mounts. The first varieties provide a change only in azimuth. But biaxial mounts have a wider functionality — they ensure the movement of panels in height and azimuth.


These components of solar cells are designed to convert direct current into alternating electricity. That is, the devices receive a strong current at a low voltage from the photocells of the battery and provide a change in its type. An alternating current of 120V is supplied from the inverters to the wires.

In some cases, devices convert direct voltage into 240V current. The electrical panel and all devices that consume energy can receive it in this form. Considering the importance of the functions of inverters, their quality must be checked before the purchase.


These elements are mandatory components of any photovoltaic system. They ensure its complete shutdown. For safety reasons, they are placed in a visible and accessible place so every family member can use the function. That’s especially true in emergency cases when solar panels fail.

It’s also worth mentioning electricity meters. They are connected to the photovoltaic system and ensure the calculation of the energy used.

What Are the Types of Solar Panels?

Learning about their main varieties is essential to understand better how solar panel works. Currently, users can choose between 2 types of solar panels: polycrystalline and monocrystalline. The main difference is the type of solar cells used in the structure’s base. Let’s examine these varieties in more detail.

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Source: Treehugger

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Photoelectric systems that belong to this category are made based on silicon. In this case, the creation technology involves the use of individual parts rather than a single crystal. It means that in the manufacturing process, individual silicon fragments are joined into one solid sheet.

The process occurs by melting these fragments. In practice, they show less efficiency than single-crystal species. But they have one important advantage — a lower price. That makes polycrystalline panels the optimal solution for consumers with a limited budget.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

This type of photovoltaic system is the most common among users. It is a functional structure that is created based on silicon plates. These components are cut from solid single crystals; based on this, this panel received such a name. Compared to the first type of systems, they have a higher efficiency level.

Regardless of which type of solar panel is chosen, the user receives significant savings and the lowest possible maintenance cost, especially if the brands give a long warranty (for example, 25 years).

What Are the Advantages of Using Solar Energy?

The use of solar energy is becoming very relevant among the population. That’s because solar radiation is a renewable energy source, and the growing trend towardsgreening makes this solution very promising. In addition, there are many other advantages of using solar panels. Here are the main ones:

Financial Savings

Solar panels are an additional source of electricity, which local stations do not generate, but separately. That means that the owner does not need to pay for the services. Moreover, electricity bills are reduced when PV systems are connected to meters. After all, the number of resources provided by local stations is decreasing.

Environmental Friendliness

Solar cells and panels not only provide an additional energy source but also do not threaten the environment. Even though different materials are used for their manufacture, they are completely safe. First, they have no chemical emissions.

Second, solar cells are recyclable; research shows that almost all raw materials suit this approach. It means they will not pollute the environment when they break or fail.

Possibility of Backup Power Supply

Solar panels can power critical devices and systems in the event of an emergency power outage. Thanks to this, you can eliminate many problems and maintain voltage in the network for a while. This feature is also an optimal solution for those who live in remote areas.

Usually, in such places, connecting to power lines is problematic or impossible. That is why solar panels are the best solution in this situation. The owner needs to spend a certain amount for the system once. After that, you can get electricity and save money.

Is the Principle of Operation of a Solar Battery Complicated?

Solar cells and panels are an efficient energy source since they allow using renewable resources and saving on electricity bills. The principle of a system’s operation may seem complicated at first. But learning what solar panels are and how they work makes it easy to understand how they convert the sun’s energy into electricity.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the lifespan of solar panels?

Modern manufacturers indicate photovoltaic systems can be used for 25 to 30 years. Under the conditions of proper operation, it takes even longer.

Do solar panels generate electricity on rainy and cloudy days?

Photoelectric systems are most effective in sunny weather. However, they absorb the sun’s energy and generate current on rainy and cloudy days.

How reliable and durable are solar panels?

Before reaching the user, solar cells and panels undergo rigorous testing. These include testing for corrosion, connector issues, discoloration, and damp heat.

Kateryna Ryzha

Kateryna Ryzha

Kateryna is an experienced writer with a focus in solar energy. She is a specialist in several topics related to energy efficiency, technical applications, renewable energy, and more as a consequence of her extensive reading.

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