How Solar Panels Work

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Solar panels work through what is called a photovoltaic process – where radiation energy (photo) is absorbed and generates electricity (voltaic).

solar panel diagram

Solar Panel Diagram: A cell level view of how solar panels work.This is called a photovoltaic process.

Radiation energy is absorbed by semi conductor cells – normally silicon – and transformed from photo energy (light) into voltaic (electrical current).

When the sun’s radiation hits a silicon atom, a photon of light energy is absorbed, ‘knocking off’ an electron.

These released electrons create an electric current.

The electric current then goes to an inverter, which converts the current from DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current).

The system is then connected to the mains power or electricity grid.

Crystalline Silicon Solar Panels

Traditional systems, called crystalline silicon solar modules, involve wafers of refined silicon beneath sheets of glass. The panels are surrounded by a metal frame.

how crystalline silicon solar panels work
A solar panel installer connects crystalline silicon panels – made with silicon wafers, glass panelling, and a frame.

These are by far the most common solar panels. If you’ve come across a solar panel installation, chances are it uses crystalline silicon technology.

Crystalline silicon technology has been used for around 50 years, and was first developed for powering satellites in space.

Current off the shelf crystalline silicon systems are generally capable of converting up to about 18 % of solar radiation exposure into useable electricity. This is termed as a photovoltaic efficiency of 18%.

The main complaint of crystalline silicon is that the systems are expensive and bulky, installation requires a lot of wiring and labour, and that glass can be prone to damage.

Thin film solar panels

The new breed of solar technology is thin-film solar panels. Thin film is less bulky than crystalline silicon, and increasingly cheaper to produce.

thin film solar panel cladding
New tech: Thin film solar panel cladding at the Solar Decathlon in Washington.

Thin-film solar energy systems currently have a lower photovoltaic efficiency than crystalline silicon – converting around 8% of radiation exposure – however the conductibility is expected to sharply rise as current research improves the method.

Thin-film solar panels work in the same photovoltaic manner as crystalline silicon modules, without the bulky wafers and glass panelling.

Amorphous silicon is a material used in some thin-film flexible solar panels, which can be moulded to essentially any surface such as roofs or walls.

Rethinking How Solar Panels Work – New Methods and Applications

Solar research and development has boomed around the world over the last few years. These include new photovoltaic conversion methods and application technology, large scale solar farms, and increasingly efficient technology.

Below are a few of these developments.

Stirling Energy Systems’ California plant has developed a new solar electricity production method.

They use the sun’s radiation to heat hydrogen gas, which spins a generator, producing electricity. This method has a reported expected efficiency of 30%.

Another development is the number of large scale solar farms, which has recently spiked.

There are now 56 large scale (20 megawatt or more capacity) solar farms, with at least 27 more in the planning or development stages.


One of the largest, the Montalto di Castro Solar Park in Italy, produces 40,000 megawatt hours per year, enough electricity to power around 13,000 Italian households.

American company Solar Roadways has recently been awarded a grant by the US Federal Highway Administration to develop a solar car park.

The idea is to cover the car park’s surface in solar panels, creating a vast surface area for clean electricity production.

Solar Roadways co-founder Scott Brusaw envisages the project spreading to roads once the technology and methodology has been developed with the carpark project.

Beyond the possibility of turning whole roads into electric grids, other features in the pipeline include built in de-icing mechanisms and LED lighting for driver visibility, as well as recharging stations for electric cars – all using free solar energy.

Another US company, Dow Chemicals, have developed thin-film solar roof tiles.

The solar roof tiles are physically like any other roof tile, and are nailed to the roof just like traditional tiles.

How the tile solar panels work is along the same concept as conventional solar – the tiles plug into each other to create an array, then an electrician connects the panels to an inverter, and into the mains power of the building.


37 Comments

  1. Abdulla Alguhy
    August 31, 2014, 1:05 pm

    i like it , more technical details required please .

  2. Abhishek
    May 1, 2014, 2:23 pm

    Thanks.Helped me a lot

  3. Regan
    February 26, 2014, 10:22 pm

    Thank you very much! It is highly appreciated!

    The context is well explained :)

  4. Antwon
    February 11, 2014, 12:37 am

    I need some help with this on my project on ‘solar energy’ and how it works.

  5. TT
    December 5, 2013, 3:46 am

    Better than wiki.

  6. anirudh singh
    October 9, 2013, 9:36 am

    nice information is given

  7. harpreet
    September 10, 2013, 7:35 am

    Yes I like it, any manufacturer of this solar panel (thin one) address please.
    and what is cost of 50kw plant setup(without Battery bank, land cost) in india .

  8. Glen
    August 13, 2013, 10:53 pm

    what is to stop it from going the same way as big oil?? the more fuel efficient the vehicle,the less fuel it uses,the more gas goes up at the pump to counter the less fuel sold.. I worked at a gas station in the early 70′s,gas was 18 cents a gallon and for that you got your windshield washed,your tires checked and aired up, all your fluid levels checked,no such thing as self service.. cars really sucked gas then compared to now.. will the same thing happen to electricity??

  9. jayesh madhavan
    July 10, 2013, 2:24 pm

    thanks to the owner of this site

  10. Prashant
    May 29, 2013, 11:57 am

    nicely explained!!

  11. Swarna
    March 26, 2013, 9:05 am

    It’s very interesting and easily understand

  12. KK
    March 20, 2013, 8:07 am

    Very good and simple explanation for the laymen. I heard that there are organic solar Cells and inorganic cells. what is their efficiency? by the way How exactly the Efficiency is defined and estimated?

    • expgreen
      April 4, 2013, 1:15 pm

      Hi KK, thanks! I’m not too sure about that one. I have read a little about naturally formed silicon crystals vs synthasized crystals, but will have to do a little research… watch this space.

  13. wyatt
    March 9, 2013, 10:30 pm

    this is not bad thankyou for the help that ment a lot

  14. wyatt
    March 9, 2013, 10:29 pm

    this is not bad

  15. Jenny Michel
    March 7, 2013, 2:06 am

    I thought this site was extremely informative and helpful. I like the idea of green energy and it involving solar energy. I too think that solar energy indefinitely has a very bright future. I would like to talk to you more about this. Please send me an e-mail.

  16. Bimbola Osinbowale
    December 17, 2012, 6:31 pm

    This is really insightful. I’m a young entrepreneur working on an idea for solar energy in my home country and would like to get in touch with you for some information. Please contact me on my email address.

    Thank you.

  17. Anonymous
    December 16, 2012, 9:21 pm

    I want to cite this information, who is the author?

    • expgreen
      December 20, 2012, 8:54 am

      Hi, the article is by Greg Whitburn. Thanks, all the best.

  18. Balu Pakhare
    December 15, 2012, 7:28 pm

    the information is really helpful one.. With the advancement of technology the use of solar power has to be done…

    This accounts to large amount of renewable energy available

  19. Sean
    December 15, 2012, 12:11 am

    I’m doing a science project and I have to do a bibliography. When was this article posted?

    • expgreen
      December 20, 2012, 8:56 am

      Hi Sean, on Jan 10 2012. Hope your project went well, sorry if the reply is too late.

  20. Jack Black Penny
    December 10, 2012, 9:24 pm

    this info helped alotttt on my ‘Solar Panels’ poster. THANKS A BUNCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • expgreen
      December 11, 2012, 5:01 am

      Great to hear. hope it went well!

    • WAFFLE
      March 11, 2013, 1:17 am

      same here!

  21. p-money
    November 16, 2012, 4:16 pm

    we all gunna die anywys in december byee.(: merp merp.<3

  22. Daniel
    November 10, 2012, 2:38 pm

    Thanks, it helped me on my physics essay.

  23. rohit
    October 31, 2012, 5:42 am

    thanks for this wonderful info……it got me a good help on project

    • expgreen
      November 7, 2012, 3:12 am

      Glad we could help Rohit. Hope your project went well.

  24. CarlosRT
    October 30, 2012, 8:29 pm

    I think this is a great idea and it should be introduced to the British Virgin Islands

  25. gauarv
    September 10, 2012, 8:43 am

    how they made their process of making and working

  26. sai
    August 14, 2012, 3:43 pm

    yaa its very understanding it gives us lot information

  27. adrian
    July 20, 2012, 12:05 pm

    How come I always find your website usefull?

  28. grace
    July 19, 2012, 6:50 am

    i like it

  29. michelle
    July 17, 2012, 10:07 pm

    This sounds great!!

  30. kaviresabz.ca
    May 2, 2012, 6:14 pm

    Very interesting.Solar Film?

  31. Sudarsono Achwan
    April 18, 2012, 6:05 am

    Yes I like it, any manufacturer of this solar panel (thin one) address please.

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