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SOLAR 101: HOW SOLAR ENERGY WORKS (STEP BY STEP)
Have you ever looked at the solar panels on roofs and wondered exactly what they do, and how? Well, those hi-tech expanses of shimmering glass are actually just one component in a complex network that harnesses the sun’s renewable energy to deliver electricity to the home within.
Let’s take a simple, step-by-step look at how solar power works.
The Ultimate Solar system by Solar Energy projects
How Do Solar Panels Make Electricity?
STEP 1: Sunlight activates the panels.
Each individual panel is constructed of a layer of silicon cells, a metal frame, a glass casing surrounded by a special film, and wiring. For maximum effect, the panels are grouped together into “arrays” (an ordered series) and placed on rooftops or in large outdoor spaces. The solar cells, which are also referred to as photovoltaic cells, absorb sunlight during daylight hours.
STEP 2: The cells produce electrical current.
Within each solar cell is a thin semiconductor wafer made from two layers of silicon. One layer is positively charged, and the other negatively charged, forming an electric field. When light energy from the sun strikes a photovoltaic solar cell, it energizes the cell and causes electrons to ‘come loose’ from atoms within the semiconductor wafer. Those loose electrons are set into motion by the electric field surrounding the wafer, and this motion creates an electrical current.
STEP 3: The electrical energy is converted.
You now have solar panels working efficiently to transform sunlight into electricity, but the electricity generated is called direct current (or DC) electricity, which is not the type of electricity that powers most homes, which is alternating current (or AC) electricity. Fortunately, DC electricity can easily be changed into AC electricity by a gadget called an inverter. In modern solar systems, these inverters can be configured as one inverter for the entire system or as individual microinverters attached behind the panels.
The future of solar is bright in Georgia, and we are leading the way in making our state a national leader in solar energy. To help meet our customers’ growing electricity needs, we’re committed to using reliable, cost-effective and renewable energy sources that work best in our state.
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To help meet our customers’ growing electricity needs, Georgia Power is committed to using reliable, cost-effective, renewable energy sources that work best in our state.
What solar solution is right for you?
Use our solar adviser tool to explore considerations and estimated costs for a solar panel installation on your home. Get real life figures to help you determine the best solar program for you and your goals.
Two ways to get solar energy
Solar Electric Power
In this approach, electricity is converted directly from solar energy through solar cells known as photovoltaic cells – photo for light and voltaic for energy.
Normally mounted on the roof or in a location with maximum sun exposure, the photovoltaic (PV) array components convert energy from the sun into electric current to power appliances and other household devices.
A PV system requires little maintenance and can produce power for more than 20 years.
Solar Thermal Energy
Heating water using electricity can make up 14-25% of the average home’s utility bill. A residential solar water heating system can be designed to meet between 50 and 80% of a home’s water heating requirements.
A solar water heating system requires collectors to absorb the sun’s energy and a storage system to hold the energy until it is needed. The systems used to store thermal energy are similar to conventional water heaters. The heated water is circulated through the home or building using pumps.
Georgia’s Solar Potential
The potential for solar energy use in Georgia is dependent upon the amount of sun shining on the earth’s surface called solar insolation. Several factors such as weather patterns, humidity and haze can affect local insolation levels.
As can be seen on this solar map, insolation values in Georgia are significant enough to support solar energy systems in our state, with the southern two-thirds of Georgia having solar insolation values equivalent to most of the state of Florida.
Experience Peace of Mind for Decades to Come with Sunrun Rooftop Solar Panels
When you team up with a solar company like Sunrun, you can create your own affordable, clean energy and gain independence from your utility company. A Sunrun solar installation can help power your home when the sun is out while you boost control over your energy usage and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels.
We offer several residential solar plans to help you start your solar journey. Find out which is the ideal fit for your budget and unique energy needs.
We offer some of the best solar rooftop panel systems on the market, and you can bring them home through a lease payment plan, flexible solar financing, or by paying outright. Our made-to-fit solar solutions, paired with exceptional service and our industry-leading solar guarantee, have positioned us as the leading residential solar and energy storage company in the U.S. 1
Solar panels are just one part of the solution to experience energy freedom and security. To ensure you get the most out of your home energy system, consider adding a solar battery back-up service like Sunrun’s Brightbox. Hundreds of millions of people were affected by blackouts from 2008 to 2017. 2 With Brightbox, you can keep your lights on and your food fresh during outages with a Smart, affordable, and reliable back-up power system.
Benefits of Adding Sunrun’s Battery Storage Service to Your Solar Panels
Brightbox doesn’t need dangerous, expensive, and toxic fossil fuels to work. 3 When the sun is out, it can store clean and affordable back-up power for later use.
Brightbox paired with a Tesla Powerwall can help you back up your entire home, or you can back up just the rooms you need with an LG Chem solar battery.
Tesla Powerwall and LG Chem solar batteries can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years, and they typically come with a 10-year manufacturer warranty for your peace of mind.
Solar with incentives
Our Automated Site Modeling tool is a revolutionary technology that allows us to design a custom Sunrun home solar energy system based on your roof’s unique dimensions and layout.
Sunrun’s Automated Site Modeling tool will use your roof’s individual profile, including shading, pitch, sun exposure, seasonality, and roof obstacles. This will ensure that the designed Sunrun solar panel system matches your home’s structure and unique energy needs. A customized system can let you know your potential control over your future electricity bills
Sunrun’s Product Selector is an innovative and simple tool. It lets you know in minutes which solar plan, with or without a home battery, can give you and your family more benefits in the long run, depending on where you live.
Sunrun’s Product Selector will use information about your roof’s type and pitch, your household size, and other important aspects, like if you have a home office or if you need back-up power, to recommend the best Sunrun home solar plan for you. This can help secure the peace of mind you deserve during rising energy costs and power outages while reducing your carbon footprint.
Does my state offer incentives to go solar?
See the states where Sunrun is currently available and the solar incentives that might be offered where you live. Some of the most common solar incentives include tax credits, property tax exemptions, and rebates. No matter what state you live in, you may be eligible for the Federal Solar Tax Credit (ITC) if you decide to purchase a home solar energy system.
You can get a Sunrun monthly plan to lease your solar panels or prepay for your renewable energy through a solar power purchase agreement or PPA plan. As a result, any incentive savings you would receive through tax credits and rebates with a system purchase can be passed to you in the form of a lower solar bill.
How do solar panels work?
You can’t talk about solar panels without talking about silicon. Silicon is a non-metallic element and the second-most abundant material on earth. 4 It can also convert sunlight into electricity, and it’s a key component in a solar system (also known as a photovoltaic, or PV system). 5
Solar panels, solar cells, or PV cells, are made by slicing crystalline silicon (also known as wafers) that are millimeters thin. These wafers are sandwiched between protective glass, insulation, and a protective back sheet, which make a solar panel. The back sheet helps to regulate the temperature and humidity to optimize the solar panel’s efficiency. 6 Multiple solar panels connected together create a solar array, and ultimately, a solar system.
Then there’s the physics of how solar cells work: Electricity is made when electrons move between atoms. The top and bottom of a silicon wafer in the solar cell are treated with small amounts of atoms of extra materials—such as boron, gallium, or phosphorus—so that the top layer has more electrons and the bottom layer has less. When the sun activates the electrons in these oppositely charged layers, the electrons move through a circuit attached to the panels. This flow of electrons through the circuit is what generates the electrical current that ultimately powers a home. 7
What are the different types of solar panels?
Monocrystalline solar panels:
Monocrystalline solar panels have the highest efficiency and power capacity out of all other types of solar panels. Another reason why people choose them is because of how they look. The solar cells within monocrystalline panels are square-shaped and have a single, flat black color, making them the most popular type of solar panels among homeowners. 8 Sunrun uses monocrystalline PV modules in all its home solar systems.
Polycrystalline solar panels:
The manufacturing process of polycrystalline solar panels is less costly than monocrystalline panels, but it also makes them less efficient. Usually, polycrystalline solar panels don’t have the corners cut off of them, so you won’t see the large white spaces on the front of the panel that you see on monocrystalline panels. 8
Thin-film solar panels:
Thin-film solar panels are less costly and easier to install than their counterparts. Still, they aren’t the best option for a home solar installation due to their efficiency, lightweight material, and durability. 8
Delays to a green transition
Despite a massive drop in costs, renewables haven’t replaced fossil fuels at the rate you might expect. That’s because the investments, policies, and very infrastructure of the energy industry as a whole are very much skewed in favor of fossil fuels.
While it is cheaper to build renewables when considering a new plant, that metric doesn’t necessarily apply to running a fossil fuel plant that already exists, explains Ashley Langer, an energy economist at the University of Arizona. Sometimes, she adds, the regulatory structure of utilities actually makes it more profitable to keep a coal or natural gas plant running.
Langer says this is especially true for the state-regulated monopolies that supply power in about half of US states. These investor-owned utilities are guaranteed a certain rate of return on their investments in power facilities, which basically guarantees continued earnings in exchange for running those plants. Even if the actual market costs of their energy sources would make operations costly, these monopolies are set up so that that’s not really a concern.
“The thing that’s really preventing us from rapidly transitioning is what we call the lock-in effect,” says Paul. “We have existing fossil plants where we’ve already paid to build them and the cost of producing one more unit of electricity is cheaper from using existing infrastructure than building new infrastructure in most cases. So given that we’ve already paid the upfront cost of this fossil fuel infrastructure, the economics don’t quite line up yet where we’re going to facilitate a Rapid phase out of fossil fuel plants prior to the end of their life cycle.”
That may change soon, though. The cost of building new renewables is becoming increasingly competitive with the cost of adding additional capacity to existing fossil fuel facilities. In the 2020 Lazard analysis, the lifetime costs (when including subsidies) of power are 31 per megawatt-hour for utility solar and 26 per megawatt-hour for wind. The cost of increasing capacity was 41 for coal and 28 for natural gas.
In addition to being already heavily invested in fossil fuels, there is a lot of inertia in the system due to long-term contracts between utilities, energy producers, and mining companies. And since the country’s total energy use is not increasing that much every year, there isn’t much incentive to build new renewables.
Market forces and monopolies aside, there are few other, more tangible barriers to a widespread renewable roll out.
Sun and wind aren’t consistent throughout the day or the year, and sometimes the best places for power don’t actually have many people living there. The windiest parts of the country—often in the interior regions like the Great Plains—have fewer people to use that power than crowded coastal cities. The aging American electrical grid doesn’t currently have the ability to distribute power from renewables over long distances, says Matt Oliver, energy economist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
These challenges of intermittency and geography are not insurmountable—batteries and water can store energy, and better transmission systems can be built. But the solutions will require massive investments to develop and build the needed infrastructure.
Making the leap to clean power
In the midst of pandemic-induced high unemployment and low interest rates, renewables and their now-cheap could finally have their moment.
“It is rare to have a policy option that leads to more jobs, cheaper for consumers, and a greener, safer planet,” writes Max Roser in the Our World in Data article. If affluent countries invest in renewables now, he adds, those technologies will grow even more affordable and therefore more likely to be adopted worldwide to meet increasing energy demands.
In the US, the federal government can play a huge role in these investments. It can borrow at low interest rates and use that advantage to help energy transition projects at state and local levels. Paul explains that this could take the form of a national climate bank, backed by the federal government, that issues bonds for local decarbonization efforts. Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland just introduced a bill proposing to launch such a bank.
The federal government can also make direct investments in clean energy. Langer says one major way political leaders can ensure an energy transition is by providing consistent subsidies to solar and wind. The wind industry in particular has struggled due to inconsistent government funding. “Wind subsidies in the United States have been highly uncertain,” says Langer. Congress will pass subsidies leading to a boom in wind industry growth, but then later allow those subsidies to expire—leading to bankruptcies.
Helping renewables flourish might be the easy part, though. President Biden has stated a goal of bringing the United States to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. Meeting this goal would require sending lots of fossil fuel plants into early retirement.
That’s one thing for coal, which is already on its way out, but Langer points out that the proliferation of new natural gas since 2005 is going to be a challenge for those big climate goals. Those new plants could easily run for decades, as long as there’s nothing stopping energy producers and utilities from making a profit. To make matters more challenging, forced closures could affect people’s energy bills. “If you retire the natural gas plants sooner, rates will rise,” says Langer. “It’s either going to come out of your taxes or it’s going to come into your electricity bills.”
Of course, just letting the plants keep running and the planet keep warming will in the long run be far more costly to humanity than shutting fossil fuels down. But those shutdown costs are still a reality in the near future. All four economists PopSci talked to for this article said that instituting a fee on carbon would help make sure that polluters are paying their fair share of that price. This could take the form of a cap and trade market or a tax on every ton of emissions produced. Right now, there’s no tax on carbon pollution, which means all the costs of increased atmospheric carbon are instead shouldered by ecosystems and individuals, who pay in ways like rising air conditioning and health care costs. (It’s like socialism, but only for the powerful and polluting, you could say).
While enacting a price per ton of carbon would affect energy bills and at the pump, some governments have developed progressive solutions to this. In British Columbia, for instance, proceeds from the country’s carbon fee are paid out to the public as tax dividends.
With oil low, some argue that this is a prime time to buy out the fossil fuel industry entirely. A one-time buyout would allow the federal government to shut down fossil fuel plants rapidly and put a stop to their political influence. “We need to dismantle the existing fossil fuel economy,” says Paul. “And if we don’t … the market force behind building that green economy is going to be slow.”
is a freelance science writer and editor. You can check out more of her work at her website.
How does solar energy work?
Solar energy is naturally occurring and plentiful. The sun is already sending its photons to our planet, providing warmth and fueling plant life. Solar panels just make it so the sun fuels your coffee maker too.
All a solar system does is capture and convert that energy, said Asim Hafeez, owner and operator of Empower Energy Solutions, a Connecticut-based solar installer. Solar panels don’t produce power, they capture energy that’s already hitting our planet.
Here’s a broad overview of how energy from the sun powers your fridge, TV and other electrical devices in your home.
The sun’s rays reach the planet.2. Solar panels, mainly made of silicon-based photovoltaic cells, absorb some of that energy, while much of it bounces off.3. The energy, in direct current form, then flows through an inverter to transform to alternating current. It is now usable.4. If your home is connected to an electrical grid, the power generated might flow into the grid. 5. Finally, an electrical panel disseminates the electricity through your home, powering all your devices.
Why is renewable energy important?
Aside from the fact that coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels are a major contributor to climate change, they are in limited supply and will eventually be used up. It is in humanity’s best interest to find alternative fuel sources, and it makes sense to use sources that are clean, limitless and available to everyone.
How a Sunrun Solar Installation Works
As a civilization, our consumption of energy has only gone up, Hafeez said. If we’re pulling from a finite energy source, it’s just a matter of time before it runs out. Modern civilization will cease to exist without finding infinite sources of power.
Why go solar?
Reducing your individual energy consumption may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but many people adopting renewables such as solar can make a considerable impact. But there are other benefits as well.
Investing in residential solar energy is a Smart decision for many folks who want to lower their electricity bills over time, reduce their carbon footprint and increase the value of their home, said Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Environmental Sustainability. Installing solar can also help support local jobs for installers and manufacturers.
If you’re considering powering your home with solar energy, here are some advantages and disadvantages you should consider:
- Lower energy bills: Using energy generated from solar panels atop your home is considerably cheaper than pulling electricity from the grid. In this way, the installation of solar panels pay for themselves after a number of years.
- It’s better for the environment: If a large portion of people get their electricity from renewable sources, it would go a long way toward cutting down the emission of greenhouse gasses.
- Solar increases the value of your home: Not only will solar panels reduce your energy bills, but increase the value of your home, according to the US Department of Energy (PDF).
- Solar has big upfront costs: Solar power system installations can range in price from 10,000 to 30,000, which is a considerable amount of money, especially in a tight economy.
- Solar may not make sense for your home: If your home doesn’t get a lot of sun or if your energy utility doesn’t offer net metering, it may not make sense to install solar.
- It may require other work: Homeowners may have to remove tree limbs or fix their roofs before a solar system can be installed, adding more expense to a pricey project.