How Solar Power Is Generated

The sun supplies Earth with enough energy every hour and a half to supply the entire planet with power for a year. Learning how to capture and convert this energy into a usable form is one of the most beneficial technological advances in human history. Not only is solar energy renewable and virtually unlimited, but it's also clean and has no adverse effects on the environment.

To understand how it all works, you must first understand where the science behind solar energy started.

How Was Solar Energy Discovered?

Technically speaking, humans have been using solar energy since the 7th century B.C., when humans used the sun to create fire. The more modern approach for harnessing the sun's energy didn't come around until much later, however.

In 1839, a French physicist named Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while conducting experiments. He found that when a metal electrode cell was exposed to light, it generated an electric current. This became the basis for how solar energy works today.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar panels are a large-scale implementation of Becquerel's discovery. They are constructed using silicon that is encased in glass and framed with metal, effectively acting as one of Becquerel's metal electrode cells.

The solar panels are directed at the sun so that they can absorb as much solar radiation as possible. When the photons (light particles) in the sun's rays make contact with the panels, the photovoltaic effect occurs and electrons on the silicon atoms are knocked loose, generating an electrical current.

The process does not end there, though. The energy captured by the photovoltaic effect is direct current (DC), but the more widely used form is alternating current (AC). In order to convert the DC electricity to AC, wires built into the solar panels absorb the generated DC electricity and then use an inverter to make it AC. This AC energy is then dispersed through an electrical grid to the building(s) that the solar power system is connected to.