When we talk about solar panels, it is important to distinguish between two main types:
Solar PV panels that produce electricity.
Solar thermal panels used for heating purposes.
Solar PV Panels
Photovoltaic systems are commonly used solar panel systems in the world. Photovoltaic systems convert sunlight directly into electricity.
Solar cells are made of semiconductors, such as silicon, which absorb the sunlight and convert it into electricity.
Solar cells are connected electrically and packed together in a frame, commonly known as a solar panel. When you connect multiple solar modules together, they form a solar array. And, finally, when you add the cabling, brackets, inverter, and so forth, the entire system forms your solar panel system.
The electrical conductors are attached to positive and negative terminals, thus forming an electrical circuit. From there, the electrons can be captured in the form of an electric current (electricity). This current, together with the cell’s voltage (which is a result of its built-in electric field or fields), defines the power (or wattage) that the solar cell can produce.
Grid-Connected vs. Stand-Alone PV Systems
Grid-connected systems make use of the local utility grid to ensure you are never without electricity. If your domestic solar module system generates more electricity than your household requires in a day, this surplus energy can be exported back to the national grid. On the other hand, if you need more electricity than your solar modules have generated, the grid can supply this.
Stand-alone PV systems are not connected to the grid, but instead, charge a solar battery system. These batteries store the electricity generated by your panels. To operate your appliances, the stored electricity from these batteries will be used. Stand-alone systems are used in areas that cannot be connected to a grid and are typically more expensive than grid-connected systems because solar batteries are still quite costly.
Solar Battery Storage Systems
Solar batteries store electricity generated by the sun’s energy and allow you to use it during the evenings when your solar modules are not generating electricity. You can make use of solar batteries whether you are connected to the grid or not.
Solar battery storage system costs are not low, ranging from £1,200 to £6,000, depending on the size and capacity. However, technological advancements are leading to new solutions year after year, and will likely lead to a reduction in solar battery prices.
Solar Thermal Collectors
Solar thermal panels use sunlight to heat up water that is stored in a cylinder, which can then be used for your home heating needs. Solar thermal panels are roof-mounted, just like solar PV panels, but look slightly different, as instead of cells they have multiple pipes that heat up water. A related technology is thermodynamic panels, which extract heat from the ambient air.
Both solar thermal and thermodynamic panels can be used for space heating, but most commonly they provide the domestic hot water (DHW) needs of households.
How Do Solar Panels Work?
Solar panels collect clean renewable energy in the form of sunlight and convert that light into electricity which can then be used to provide power for electrical loads. Solar modules are comprised of several individual solar cells which are themselves composed of layers of silicon, phosphorous (which provides the negative charge), and boron (which provides the positive charge). Solar modules absorb the photons and in doing so initiate an electric current.
The resulting energy generated from photons striking the surface of the solar module allows electrons to be knocked out of their atomic orbits and released into the electric field generated by the solar cells which then pull these free electrons into a directional current. This entire process is known as the Photovoltaic Effect. An average home has more than enough roof area for the necessary number of solar panels to produce enough solar electricrity to supply all of its power needs excess electricity generated goes onto the main power grid, paying off in electricity use at night.
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