How Is Solar Energy Produced

How is Solar Energy Produced?

Solar energy, although not particularly new in terms of technology, is a relatively new source of large-scale energy production. In their basic form, solar panels harness the energy of the sun and create electricity. However, if you are wondering “how is solar energy produced” then the entire process is intricate and extremely sophisticated. Despite this, it allows us to move away from fossil fuels because it is a type of renewable energy that we can rely on.

For decades, scientists have been looking for sustainable types of energy production3. Solar energy could be it, presenting many of the advantages of renewable energy. For as long as the sun shines in the sky, we can harness its energy and create electricity. As technology evolves, the way in which solar power produces electricity will become more efficient. This will create a clean energy source that is reliable.

So, how is solar energy produced?

Solar Energy Photovoltaics

There Are Two Main Sources of Solar Energy

In order to understand how solar panels work, it is worth knowing that there are two main types7. The first is Solar Thermal. This utilizes the heat of the sun and transfers it to another medium, which is often a liquid.

The next is the Solar Photovoltaic PV5. This captures the energy of the sun and then transfers this directly to electricity. This is the common kind of system that is often seen on houses and in solar arrays on farms.

Photovoltaic Arrays Explained

Photovoltaic arrays are a group of PV cells that join together. This allows them to create more energy than a single sell on its own. Solar PV cells are made from silicon that has been specially treated. Therefore, the material consists of a positive side and a negative side. This makes it possible to transmit electricity. This cell then joins a number of additional cells through metal connectors. These then connect to a frame for support, ultimately creating a PV module. All of the modules join together to form a PV array that has a single electrical output.

Solar Panels Convert Sunlight to Energy

Solar Powered Street Lights
Solar energy is more and more common. Even on street lights. Photo Credit: Sandra Parra on Unsplash

To create solar energy, it all begins with solar panels. Many would consider these to be the most crucial aspect of creating solar power. Any solar electric system will rely on solar panels. Most panels use silicon cells such as monocrystalline or polycrystalline. A panel will house the silicone cells before a glass case covers them.

As solar energy relies on sunlight to create electric power, their position is vital. They have to have maximum exposure to the sun as this allows as much sunlight as possible to reach the panel. So, when the sunlight hits the silicon layer on the top of the panel, the electrons receive a negative charge. This results in them becoming attracted to one side of the silicon cell. This, in turn, creates an electric current that moves through the wiring within the panel.

This type of energy production is known as the photovoltaic effect1. So, the electricity that solar systems generate is created by the sunlight freeing up electrons. This forms the basis of the electricity that solar systems generate. Effectively, the more sunlight that reaches the panel, the process intensifies and increases, creating more electricity.

There are different solar panels available and they will create electricity at a different rate. However, as far as renewable energy types go, solar power is one of the more reliable sources of AC electricity available at the moment.

Inverters Make it Possible to Use the Energy

Once the reaction has occurred and the sunlight has reacted with the silicon, the energy transfer process takes place. The solar energy system will consist of an array of cables. All of these cables will terminate at an electrical box known as an inverter, which is also known as a fused array combiner. The setup of the system will differ between domestic solar power systems and power stations. However, the principle is almost the same.

Within the electrical box or combiner box as it is known, fuses protect the module cables individually. They also protect the connections that pass the power to the inverter. At this stage of the process, the electricity is known as a direct current (DC). In order to turn this into usable electricity, the system will convert this to an alternating current (AC). This makes it possible for homes and workplaces to use electricity.

Most electronic devices are unable to use a DC electricity current, it also means that it is not possible to return it to the electric grid6. However, solar arrays do not create power consistently and that can mean that the amount can vary. This is all down to the amount of light that reaches the PV cells. So, in order to deal with these problems, the inverter and transformer correct them by altering the type of electrical power and the amount that the system supplies. Therefore, the inverter will convert DC power to AC power, making it possible for electric appliances or grids to make use of the power.

Controlling Photovoltaic Arrays

One aspect of learning how is solar energy produced is understanding how it maximizes the amount of sunlight that reaches the system. The amount of energy that a solar system produces will relate to the position of the PV array, therefore, a solar tracker or array controllers are used4. The tracker will follow the sun through the use of light sensors while the controllers will move the PV arrays based on the output from the solar tracker. This ensures that the panels capture the most sun and generate as much solar energy as possible. The Power of Solar Power as a Renewable Energy Source

The sun has enough power to power the entire world. Unlike fossil fuels, this energy source is readily available and limitless. Therefore, it will not run out any time soon. The potential of this renewable energy source is the technology, which is improving year on year.

As the world unites to seek out a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, solar energy is a feasible replacement and possibility. Solar energy is a clean source of energy and as it can provide us with as much energy as we need, it can help to drive emissions down. Following the installation of solar panels, the operation costs remain low and there is no fuel to burn.

Solar Panel Technologies

As we now know, the majority of solar panels contain crystalline or polycrystalline silicon. However, solar energy and the technology that surrounds it is evolving at an impressive rate. As we seek effective ways to harness the power of the sun, research and improvement are ongoing.

Cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar panels use a different kind of material to the usual silicon. The efficiency rating is not as high but they can capture the energy of the sun in shorter wavelengths.

Copper gallium indium diselenide solar panels are more efficient than CdTe panels. As a result, they are now a promising option although the production costs are high. These panels rely on copper-based material to create electricity.

Organic Photovoltaic Cells (OPV) solar panels rely on organic material. This has a small amount of potential to replace the likes of silicon or copper, however, the technology does need to improve. Using a thin layer of vapor or solution, they can create an electrical current using sunlight. However, this type of system presently has a shorter life span and lower efficiency.

While these systems all have the ability to generate electricity, they are a small section of the solar market. Currently, silicon-based systems are the most popular choice.

How is Solar Energy Produced? Now You Know

You no longer have to ask yourself "how is solar energy produced?". Solar energy has come a long way since its very beginning. It is now a prominent energy source that is growing in popularity at home and for companies using more renewable energy. Wind farms are becoming a common sight and more homeowners are choosing to harness the power of the sun. The ability to use the limitless amount of sunlight as well as the reduction in greenhouse gases make this a leader when it comes to renewable energy2.

Solar Energy Arrays
Solar Energy production: coming to a rooftop near you. Photo Credit: Biei Morro on Unsplash
1Ji, W. , Yao, K. and Liang, Y. C. (2010), Bulk Photovoltaic Effect at Visible Wavelength in Epitaxial Ferroelectric BiFeO3 Thin Films. Adv. Mater., 22: 1763-1766. doi:10.1002/adma.200902985
2The underestimated potential of solar energy to mitigate climate change. Felix Creutzig, Peter Agoston, Jan Christoph Goldschmidt, Gunnar Luderer, Gregory Nemet & Robert C. Pietzcker. Nature Energy volume 2, Article number: 17140 (2017)
3H.L. Zhang, J. Baeyens, J. Degrève, G. Cacères, Concentrated solar power plants: Review and design methodology, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 22, 2013, Pages 466-481, ISSN 1364-0321, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2013.01.032.
4Solar Tracking System: More Efficient Use of Solar Panels. J. Rizk and Y. Chaiko. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology. 41, 2008.
5Priscila Gonçalves Vasconcelos Sampaio, Mario Orestes Aguirre González, Photovoltaic solar energy: Conceptual framework, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 74, 2017, Pages 590-601, ISSN 1364-0321, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2017.02.081.
6Toward Cost-Effective Solar Energy Use. By Nathan S Lewis. Science. 09 FEB 2007 : 798-801
7Granqvist, C. (2003), Solar Energy Materials. Adv. Mater., 15: 1789-1803. doi:10.1002/adma.200300378
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