The sun has served as a source of heat and power for centuries. However, it took the space program of the mid-20th century to create the technology to turn the rays of the sun into a reliable source of modern electrical power. Hailed as one of the most favorable alternatives to fossil fuels, solar power provides clean, renewable energy with minimal negative environmental impact.
If you are a homeowner, the solar panel is the key to accessing this form of energy. The panels seen on the rooftops of an increasing number of houses are actually a collection of hundreds of photovoltaic cells. These cells are designed to convert sunlight to direct current, which is accumulated and transformed into usable electrical power.
As the primary component of the solar panel, the solar cell has received a great deal of attention from the scientific community. Increasing both the efficiency and affordability of these cells is the reason solar panels have experienced such a dramatic drop in cost and increase in reliability. Today’s standard solar panels are only 11-15 percent efficient, which explains what percentage of sunlight that hits a panel is actually turned into usable electrical power. The higher the efficiency, the fewer solar panels are needed, and this makes any home installation more affordable.
Each photovoltaic cell is actually a multi-layered sandwich that is manufactured with an imbalance in the electrons of the different materials used. While silicon is the most common material used for creating the electron flow, numerous other compositions are now being used in new solar panels.
When assembled and exposed to light, the cell has electrons flowing in a closed loop, normally composed of 60 cells per solar panel. This flow is captured by an inverter, which feeds alternating current electricity to the home, the electrical grid or other power system. The latest solar power systems will also store generated electricity in high-efficiency batteries, saving the power for nighttime or sunless periods.
Solar panels work most efficiently when they are installed correctly and get the greatest exposure to sunlight for the longest period of time. According to experts Aspenmark Roofing, basic considerations for installation include:
- Determining the best orientation, generally on the southern side of a roof
- Maintaining the right pitch. Most homes do not have the more expensive solar tracking systems, and this makes it important to determine the right pitch to use when installed.
- Maintaining the right temperature range is important for some panels, requiring adequate air flow
- Ensuring maximum daily exposure by avoiding shadows and shade that interfere with functioning at different periods of the day.
Alternatives to the traditional solar panel are gaining wide acceptance, including thin film panels that are actually incorporated into roofing materials. While they work the same way as earlier solar panels by creating an electron flow, they are less visible and eliminate the need for hundreds of individual photovoltaic cells.
Continuing advances in cost and efficiencies will provide you with new options for using solar panels for your home over the coming decade.