Solar Power – How Does It Actually Work?

With rising energy costs across the globe, it’s no wonder that people are looking into alternative methods for their energy needs. Solar power has become popular in recent years because it’s a cheap way to harness the sun’s rays and use them for electricity. Solar panels capture the sun’s rays and use various processes to convert the solar energy into electricity.

If you’re thinking of getting solar panels for your home or garden, or are curious about how solar power works, we have it all covered. Keep reading to find out just how those panels convert light into electricity.

What Are Electrons?

Before you can understand how solar power works, you must first understand how atoms and electricity works. While this is a very simplified explanation, it should give you a general idea of what’s going on. Electricity is a flow of electrons, small negatively charged particles attached to atoms.

The flow of electrons through circuit is what powers everything from your TV to your coffee maker. As the charged particles pass through the metal tips of the plug and into your devices, they swirl around inside to generate power and heat. As atoms are excited, they in turn excite their electrons and let them flow freely.

In short, everything in your house that’s powered by electricity is powered by the flow of electrons from a power source. Electric companies are capable of generating streams of electrons that they send to your house through power grids that run through your devices and make them work.

The electrons flow back out of the device and head back to the electric company to be used again. But unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more to making things work than electrons shooting down an electrical line. Let’s take a look at how electricity works and how the things in your house get power.

Atoms

Before you can understand how the sockets in your home work, you have to understand where the electrons come from to begin with. Atoms contain three different basic components: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Electrons are negatively charged particles that are what’s used to generate electricity.

Some atoms hold their electrons very close to the nucleus, meaning that electricity is difficult to pass through it, and some atoms, like most metals, are more capable of a free flow of electrons around the nucleus of the atom. These metals are better for carrying current, which is why all electrical wires are made of some type of metal, usually copper.

As the sun releases energy into the Earth’s atmosphere, things heat up. The reason we feel hot in the day is because the sun’s energy comes down and excites the electrons within our body’s atoms. In some cases though, the electrons of certain atoms don’t just shake to create heat. Certain atoms release their loosely bound electrons when solar energy reaches them.

So, now that we know that loose electrons are easier to flow and that metals are the best conductors of loose electrons, let’s move on to how actual electricity flows and works.

Understanding The Basics

There are a few fundamental components of electricity that are present in every electrical circuit. Things like voltage, amperage, and ohms measure how much of everything is in the electricity. First of all, voltage is a measure of the force that’s behind any electrical current. It’s all well and good to have a free flowing collection of electrons, but if you have nothing to move them through a wire, they’re virtually useless.

Voltage is a charge differential between the wire and the electrons. The slight difference in charge (the wire being slightly positive and the electrons being slightly negative) “pulls” the electrons through the wire. The rate at which electrons are pulled or “forced” is called the voltage.

Next up in any circuit is a measure of the amperage. Amperage is an estimate of how much charge is flowing through a circuit at any time. As electrons flow through a light bulb for instance, the force with which the electrons are pushed through could stay the same, but if you increase the number of electrons being pushed, or increasing the amperage (amps) of a circuit, you can make the bulb brighter. Finally, there are ohms. Ohms are a measure of resistance, or more importantly, the amount of resistance experienced in a wire.

Electrons can’t flow 100% freely through a line and they bump into things along their way to their destination. Ohms measure how much resistance there is for the current to flow through a circuit and how much “back pressure” is being experienced the whole way through the circuit. If something has a high resistance, it means that the backpressure is going to cause friction and ultimately heat. Too much resistance and fires can start.

Let’s get Back To Solar Power

Solar panels are generally made from a material called silicon. Silicon doesn’t heat up very much when the sun’s light reaches it. Instead, silicon releases its electrons and helps create a stream of them that can be harnessed. So, when the sun’s rays reach Earth and heat up silicon crystals, instead of just getting hot, silicon releases electrons that pass through wires and into our homes.

The problem with this method though is that in order for the silicon to be effective, the silicon crystals have to be very large. Creating large silicon crystals is expensive and difficult, and until other materials are found to produce electricity instead of just heat when in contact with the sun’s rays, we’ll continue to use the expensive solar panels that we make today.

Examples With Images

Here are some images for you to better comprehend the usage of solar power in our daily lives –

Solar Powered Street Lights

The above is a conceptual shot of  using solar power to power up street lights and conserve energy at the same time. The second photo is the same in action in Perth, Australia.

Solar Powered Battery Charger

Solar Powered House – That’s a lot of energy!

Solar Powered Gates

Solar Powered Clock

Ukishima Solar Power Plant, Japan

If you have additional thoughts, please let us know in the comments section below.

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