Want to Make Your Own Solar Panels? It’s Easier Than You’d Think
Want to power devices around your home with solar power? If you’re up for a DIY challenge, you can build your own solar panel.
Stephen J. Bronner is a New York-based freelance writer, editor and reporter. Over his more than a decade in journalism, he has written about energy, local politics and schools, startup success tips, the packaged food industry, the science of work, personal finance and blockchain. His bylined work has appeared in Inverse, Kotaku, Entrepreneur, NextAdvisor and CNET, and op-eds written on behalf of his clients were published in Forbes, HR Dive, Fast Company, NASDAQ and MarketWatch. Stephen previously served as contributors editor and news editor for Entrepreneur.com, and was the VP, Content and Strategy, at Ditto PR. He enjoys video games and punk rock. See some of his work at stephenjbronner.com.
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Using solar panels to create electricity from nothing but sunlight could be easily mistaken for magic. But the technology behind this seeming photovoltaic abracadabra is surprisingly simple.
In fact, the process of making your own solar panels is quite straightforward. The supplies are readily available and inexpensive, and no professional skills are required beyond a little soldering.
It’s amazing that we have devices with no moving parts that create electricity, just by sticking them outside, Joshua Pearce, a professor at Western University in Ontario and co-author of To Catch the Sun, a free ebook on DIY solar systems. But while turning sunlight directly into electricity seems like magic, really anyone with even modest technical skills can get involved, whether they’re building their own modules from individual cells or building their own photovoltaic systems from commercially available modules.
Can solar panels save you money?
Interested in understanding the impact solar can have on your home? Enter some basic information below, and we’ll instantly provide a free estimate of your energy savings.
If you’ve got some technical chops and the patience to learn, the (solar) power is in your hands. Here’s what you need to know to start building your own solar panels.
Can you make your own solar panels?
People can absolutely make their own panels, said Pearce, whose ebook describes the steps to make solar systems and shares stories of people around the world who powered their communities with the sun’s energy.
Can solar panels save you money?
Interested in understanding the impact solar can have on your home? Enter some basic information below, and we’ll instantly provide a free estimate of your energy savings.
The basic components of a solar panel are the photovoltaic cells, tab wires and a material to encapsulate them, typically glass. All of these materials can be ordered online or purchased at hardware stores, and they’re available in varying sizes.
It’s best to start small, not only because it’ll be simpler, but because buying larger panels is actually cheaper than making them. Pearce recommends a good starting project would be a smaller panel, enough to power, say, a water pump for your yard. This way, you can practice your soldering skills and familiarize yourself with the materials.
It’s very simple. We’ve taught fifth graders how to solder the cells together, put them on a piece of glass and make electricity, said John Burke, chair of the American Solar Energy Society’s photovoltaics division, who has done a number of workshops on assembling solar modules around the world.
But still be careful when undertaking such a project, as you’re working with electrical components and tools that can burn. There’s a minor risk of wiring it up wrong, creating a short somewhere or burning yourself with the soldering iron, but it’s not terribly dangerous one way or the other, Pearce said.
Can you put together a solar panel system yourself?
When you’re ready to take on a bigger project, it’s entirely possible to put together a solar panel system to provide most of your home’s energy needs. And good news, DIYers: The economics are in your favor, Pearce said. It’s about half the cost to install solar panel systems if you do most of the work yourself and just have an electrician attach them to the grid than to call a solar installer to power up your home.
First, buy premade solar panels.- it’ll be pricier to assemble ones from scratch yourself.- then fit them into racks (you can build your own) and angle them toward the sun. This kind of system can power direct current, or DC, devices. Or, if you’re more handy, you can connect it to an inverter to convert the electricity to alternating current, or AC, the standard for American electrical devices.
Be sure to test the system with a multimeter. However, it’s recommended to hire a licensed electrician to make sure the system functions properly. In either case, hiring a licensed electrician will be required to connect your system to the electrical grid.
In many parts of the world, a solar energy system is a key part of subsistence, particularly when natural disasters strike. In poorer regions, tracking down a certified electrician to put up solar panels after a hurricane knocks out the electric grid is simply not an option, Burke pointed out.
How does solar energy work in a PV system?
Solar panels convert the energy of photons (light particles) into electricity (as we discuss in The Beginner’s Guide to Solar Energy ). This process is called the photovoltaic effect.
When a photon hits a photovoltaic (PV) device, its energy is transferred from the photon to the local electrons in the material. These excited electrons begin to flow, producing an electric current.
Solar cells (within solar panels) produce direct current (DC) electricity, which is typically converted to alternating current (AC) electricity by an inverter. This allows it to be sent back to the electric grid, which operates with AC electricity, as well as used to power appliances in the customer’s home (or commercial building, in the case of commercial solar installations).
That’s the in-depth explanation. In summary, the process of how solar panels works involves three primary steps:
- Solar cells within solar panels absorb light from the sun, which causes an electric current to begin flowing.
- An inverter converts DC electricity to AC electricity.
- This electricity is used to supply current energy demands in the customer’s building and excess electricity beyond what the customer can use is exported to the grid.
What happens with the energy a PV system produces?
Most solar customers in the U.S. have grid-connected solar installations. Because their homes and PV systems are both connected to the electric grid, these customers have the option of buying additional utility power if their solar installations aren’t generating enough energy — like on rainy days or when the sun goes down.
It also means that whenever their PV system produces more power than they need, that excess energy can be sent to the grid for other utility customers to use. And thanks to different state-level incentives — like net metering and feed-in tariffs — it’s often possible to monetize some of this surplus solar power and save even more money.
Net Energy Metering
Under state-level net metering programs, utility customers can feed unused solar power into the grid in exchange for credits they can use to offset the cost of future utility bills.
Net metering has played a significant role in making solar energy cost-effective. However, around the country, we are beginning to see some changes in how utility companies implement net metering. And quite often, these changes attempt reduce the long-term value that solar customers receive from their PV installations. (Don’t take this sitting down, see what you can do.)
Feed-in tariffs are another way of compensating solar customers for the electricity they send to the grid. Under most state-level feed-in tariff programs, utility customers receive cash payments instead of credits for any unused solar power they feed into the grid.
What are the parts of a Photovoltaic system?
A simple PV system contains two basic types of components:
- Solar Modules : Solar modules contain PV cells that convert sunlight into electricity.
- Solar Inverter : An inverter converts DC electricity to AC power. It can also perform other functions that are beneficial to the electricity grid (see our article on Smart inverters. which are now required in California).
Diagram of a simple PV system. Source: Aurora Solar.
It is common practice to refer to the remaining parts of a PV system (besides the modules) as balance of system (BOS) components. Examples of BOS components include:
It’s also worth noting that many customers are now choosing to install their PV systems with on-site solar batteries for night-time and emergency backup power. Electric vehicle (EV) charging is also increasingly common — especially among homeowners who invest in rooftop solar.
Of course, this is just a basic overview of the parts of a solar installation and how they fit together. Explore some of our related articles for a deeper dive into the ways that solar panels and inverters can be wired together (i.e. stringing). We also have resources on some of the most popular alternatives to traditional solar inverters, including module-level power electronics (MLPE).
What factors impact solar PV system efficiency
Even under laboratory conditions, no solar panel is 100% efficient at converting sunlight into clean electricity. These efficiency losses become even more pronounced once those panels are installed on a user’s actual roof.
Some of the main environmental factors that can negatively impact solar panel efficiency include:
- Temperature : Solar panel efficiency is inversely proportional to temperature. This means that the hotter it becomes outside, the less solar energy your modules will generate (with all other factors held equal).
- Soiling : Material that accumulates on the surface of PV panels can block sunlight from reaching the solar cells, reducing the amount of power they can generate. These energy losses are highly variable and depend both on the type of soiling (i.e. dust, pollen, or snow ) and how frequently the PV panels are cleaned and maintained.
Soiling, such as dust, on PV modules reduces power output.
- Shading : Shading is what happens when surrounding trees, buildings, terrain, and other objects partially or fully block sunlight from hitting a PV system. The effect of shading on solar power output is highly variable. To learn more about the causes and consequences of shading, this article and this section of our PV system losses series are great resources.
- Wiring and connections : Resistance in the electrical connections of a solar installation typically results in energy losses of a few percent.
- Mismatching : Due to manufacturing variations, modules of the same type can have slightly different electrical characteristics. This mismatch between modules can lead to performance losses.
- Inverter efficiency : Converting DC into AC via an inverter is typically around 96-97% efficient. Solar inverters typically enjoy improved conversion efficiency rates when the DC input power is high. However, conversion rates take a big hit when the input is much less than the inverter’s rated power.
- Age : All solar panels degrade with time — producing less energy the older they get. This decrease in performance is typically factored into the PV module manufacturer’s linear 25-year warranty, with most degradation rates hovering around 0.5% per year.
For a deeper dive into solar panel efficiency losses, see our PV System Losses Series.
Typical solar efficiency values for different PV system loss types.
System derate factor
The above variables are combined in a coefficient called the “system derate factor” to represent the overall losses of a solar installation. For instance, PVWatts, an NREL-supported PV system energy production calculator, uses a default system derate factor of 86%.
However, depending on the PV system design or environmental conditions. this value can be higher or lower. Advanced solar design software like Aurora can ensure that you accurately determine PV system losses and how much energy your customer’s solar installation will actually produce.
Solar panel (module) efficiency denotes what portion of irradiance a module converts into electricity under standard test conditions (STC; irradiance of 1000W/m2, ambient temperature of 25°C). As a general rule of thumb, you can estimate how efficient a PV system is at converting solar irradiance into electricity (under STC) using the following formula:
Overall System Efficiency = Module Efficiency x Derate Factor
It is important to note that these are merely back-of-the-envelope calculations. To get a comprehensive energy production analysis, you need dedicated tools, such as Aurora Solar’s Design Software. that can incorporate all of a PV system’s environmental, mechanical, and electrical characteristics.
About Solar PV Education 101
This blog is part of Solar PV Education 101. a six-article series that serves as an introductory primer on the fundamentals of solar. We’re updating each piece in late 2022, so be sure to check back often for the most recent information.
Solar power – unlimited source of energy
Solar power is the key to a clean energy future and plays a crucial role in the decarbonization of our societies. Every day, the sun gives off far more energy than we need to power everything on Earth. Fortum has excellent experience producing solar power and co-owns several solar plants in India. Also, in the Nordics, the conditions for solar power are promising. That is why we are developing solar plants also in our home market.
Solar panels produce electricity by transforming the continuous flow of energy from the sun to electricity.
No harmful emissions are released into the air when electricity is produced by solar panels.
Low operating costs
The photovoltaic process that transforms sunlight into electricity doesn’t require any fuel and has no variable costs.
Limitless solar energy
The sun provides more than enough energy to meet the whole world’s energy needs, and unlike fossil fuels, it won’t run out anytime soon. As a renewable energy source, the only limitation of solar power is our ability to turn it into electricity efficiently and cost-effectively.
No greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere when using solar panels to create electricity. And because the sun provides more energy than we’ll ever need, electricity from solar power is an essential energy source in the move to clean energy production.
No fuel to burn
After installing solar panels, operational costs are pretty low compared to other forms of power generation. Fuel isn’t required, which means that solar power can create large amounts of electricity without the uncertainty and expense of securing a fuel supply.
Solar power and the environment
As a renewable CO2-free power source, the environmental impact of solar power is significantly smaller than other power generation methods. The impact is mainly related to the production and supply of the special materials and metals that are required to produce solar panels. The location and the water used to clean the solar panels also affect the environment. We are working hard to find alternative ways to clean our solar panels.
FAQ – Solar power
A power generation method that converts energy from the sun into electricity. It uses solar panels that are often arranged on a building or concentrated in solar farms to facilitate a reaction that converts the sun’s light radiation into electricity.
Photovoltaic cells in a solar panel turn sunlight into direct current electricity (DC). Then, an inverter converts the DC electricity into alternating current electricity (AC), and once this process has taken place, the electricity is used, fed into the grid or stored in a battery.
In the Nordic region, we have really good conditions for solar power. In the summer, the sun shines here a majority of the hours of the day. The slightly cooler climate in the Nordics is also very beneficial for solar energy, as warmer temperatures reduce the efficiency of the solar cells.
Several large-scale solar power parks are currently being developed in the Nordic region. In 2022, Sweden entered the top 10 in terms of the largest markets for solar energy within the EU, while Denmark has eighth place on the same list. According to calculations from Solar Power Europe, electricity production from solar power will reach one gigawatt in Finland by 2025.
The main advantage is that it is a renewable, clean source of electricity. Solar power is also scalable. This means that it can be deployed on an industrial scale, or it can be used to power a single household. When it’s used on a small scale, extra electricity can be stored in a battery or fed back into the electricity grid. Overall, the sun gives off far more energy than we’ll ever need. The only limitation is our ability to convert it to electricity in a cost-effective way.
How Do Solar Panels Work?
When photons hit a solar cell, they knock electrons loose from their atoms. If conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides of a cell, it forms an electrical circuit. When electrons flow through such a circuit, they generate electricity. Multiple cells make up a solar panel, and multiple panels (modules) can be wired together to form a solar array. The more panels you can deploy, the more energy you can expect to generate.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are made up of many solar cells. Solar cells are made of silicon, like semiconductors. They are constructed with a positive layer and a negative layer, which together create an electric field, just like in a battery.
How Do Solar Panels Generate Electricity?
PV solar panels generate direct current (DC) electricity. With DC electricity, electrons flow in one direction around a circuit. This example shows a battery powering a light bulb. The electrons move from the negative side of the battery, through the lamp, and return to the positive side of the battery.
With AC (alternating current) electricity, electrons are pushed and pulled, periodically reversing direction, much like the cylinder of a car’s engine. Generators create AC electricity when a coil of wire is spun next to a magnet. Many different energy sources can “turn the handle” of this generator, such as gas or diesel fuel, hydroelectricity, nuclear, coal, wind, or solar.
AC electricity was chosen for the U.S. electrical power grid, primarily because it is less expensive to transmit over long distances. However, solar panels create DC electricity. How do we get DC electricity into the AC grid? We use an inverter.
What Does a Solar Inverter Do?
A solar inverter takes the DC electricity from the solar array and uses that to create AC electricity. Inverters are like the brains of the system. Along with inverting DC to AC power, they also provide ground fault protection and system stats, including voltage and current on AC and DC circuits, energy production and maximum power point tracking.
Central inverters have dominated the solar industry since the beginning. The introduction of micro-inverters is one of the biggest technology shifts in the PV industry. Micro-inverters optimize for each individual solar panel, not for an entire solar system, as central inverters do. This enables every solar panel to perform at maximum potential. When a central inverter is used, having a problem on one solar panel (maybe it’s in the shade or has gotten dirty) can drag down the performance of the entire solar array. Micro-inverters, make this a non-issue. If one solar panel has an issue, the rest of the solar array still performs efficiently.
How Does a Solar Panel System Work?
Here’s an example of how a home solar energy installation works. First, sunlight hits a solar panel on the roof. The panels convert the energy to DC current, which flows to an inverter. The inverter converts the electricity from DC to AC, which you can then use to power your home. It’s beautifully simple and clean, and it’s getting more efficient and affordable all the time.
However, what happens if you’re not home to use the electricity your solar panels are generating every sunny day? And what happens at night when your solar system is not generating power in real-time? Don’t worry, you still benefit through a system called “net metering.”
A typical grid-tied PV system, during peak daylight hours, frequently produces more energy than one customer needs, so that excess energy is fed back into the grid for use elsewhere. The customer gets credit for the excess energy produced and can use that credit to draw from the conventional grid at night or on cloudy days. A net meter records the energy sent compared to the energy received from the grid.
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speak with our professional consultants at (631) 771-5152.