How solar panels work: everything you need to know

What is a solar panel?

A solar panel, also known as a photovoltaic panel, is a device that averages 1m70 by 1 m and converts some of the solar radiation into energy. There are two types of solar panels:

  • On the one hand, monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels, account for more than 90% of the current market.
  • On the other, thin-film solar panels.

Monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels

These panels are composed of 60 to 120 photovoltaic cells, made from a semiconductor material called silicon. It’s the most abundant chemical element on Earth after oxygen. It’s found in the Earth’s crust in the form of sand or quartz.

How are monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels made?

STEP 1: Start by mixing sand or quartz with wood and carry this mixture at a very high temperature (3000 °C) to obtain silicon. But at this stage, silicon is not yet ready to be used in the manufacture of a panel.

STEP 2: In the case of monocrystalline, a major chemical purification treatment is required to obtain a single silicon crystal. For polycrystalline, silicon scrap from the production of monocrystalline cells is simply used.

STEP 3: The different silicon crystals are aggregated and cooked again to form ingots (1450 °C).

STEP 4: These ingots will then be cut into slices thinner than a hair.

STEP 5: It remains only to dope the silicon with phosphorus and boron and print an electrical circuit on the cell.

This results in solid dark blue photovoltaic cells for monocrystalline cells and blue mosaic cells for polycrystalline cells.

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Thin-film panels

This type of panel is itself a combination of several technologies. We will therefore focus on CIGS technology, which is one of the most common.

CIGS = Copper Indium Gallium and Selenite, the elements that make up this type of panel.

Thin-film panels were supposed to revolutionize solar power by reducing production costs, but the manufacturing prices of silicon panels have dropped so much that CIGS technology has lost all its interest.

Installation of a solar panel:

How do photovoltaic panels convert sunlight into electricity?

In fact, this conversion is made possible by the silicon that makes up the cells. As all matter around us, silicon is made up of atoms, and the special thing about silicon is that the electrons that gravitate around its atoms move in all directions when exposed to light, which generates an electrical voltage. But that’s not enough to create electricity.

To do this, the circulation of electrons must be forced in a specific direction. So a surplus of electrons is created on the top layer of the cell, by doping it with phosphorus atoms that have more electrons than silicon. And on the bottom layer of the cell are placed boron atoms that have an electron deficit.

Thanks to this, when light hits the solar panels, electrons flow from the top layer to the bottom layer of the cell, creating an electrical current. Concretely, most monocrystalline panels have a yield between 18 and 24%.

Of course, the more exposed your panels are to the sun, the more electricity they will produce. So in cloudy or snowy weather, your panels will continue to produce, but in less quantity than during a beautiful and long summer day, for example.

However, solar panels do not produce electricity at all during the night. If you wish, you can store the electricity you produced during the day in batteries.

Composition of a photovoltaic installation

As we have just seen, solar panels generate electricity when exposed to light. But to be absolutely precise, they just produce direct current. However, your home and the power grid use alternating currents. 

How does It do this?

There is various equipment to operate your solar panels:

  • Solar panel: as explained above, the solar panel allows us to capture the sun’s rays and transform them into electricity thanks to photovoltaic cells.
  • The photovoltaic inverter: this element is an electronic device that allows converting the direct current into an alternating current. The solar panels are connected to one or more inverters and then to your electrical meter.
  • Electrical wiring: this element is simply used to transport electrical energy. It allows us to connect the different elements.
  • The battery: it’s used in the case of a self-contained solar installation to store the electrical energy generated.
  • The charge controller: it’s used only in the presence of a battery. It makes it possible to extend the life of the batteries by achieving optimal filling.

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The benefits of photovoltaic solar panels

  • Photovoltaic solar panels help reduce CO2 emissions and preserve natural resources.
  • Once the investment cost is amortised, you will realise significant energy savings on a daily basis.
  • The value of your home increases thanks to the installation of a photovoltaic system.
  • The installation of solar panels is a sustainable investment since it’s an operation that lasts over time. Indeed, solar panel has an average lifespan of 30 years. Just clean them once or twice a year and have them reviewed regularly.
  • Using solar energy to make your own green electricity means you can no longer be dependent on the public grid, and therefore no longer face price increases.