What is a solar inverter and how does it work?

How do solar photovoltaic (PV) panels work?

Simply put, a solar panel works by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity, according to the University of Minnesota Duluth. Solar panels actually comprise many, smaller units called photovoltaic cells — this means they convert sunlight into electricity. Many cells linked together make up a solar panel.

Each photovoltaic cell is basically a sandwich made up of two slices of semi-conducting material. Photovoltaic cells are usually made of silicon — the same stuff used in microelectronics.

To work, photovoltaic cells need to establish an electric field. Much like a magnetic field, which occurs due to opposite poles, an electric field occurs when opposite charges are separated. To get this field, manufacturers "dope" silicon with other materials, giving each slice of the sandwich a positive or negative electrical charge.

How do solar photovoltaic (PV) panels work

Specifically, they seed phosphorous into the top layer of silicon, according to the American Chemical Society, which adds extra electrons, with a negative charge, to that layer. Meanwhile, the bottom layer gets a dose of boron, which results in fewer electrons, or a positive charge. This all adds up to an electric field at the junction between the silicon layers. Then, when a photon of sunlight knocks an electron free, the electric field will push that electron out of the silicon junction.

What the future of solar looks like

A couple of other components of the cell turn these electrons into usable power. Metal conductive plates on the sides of the cell collect the electrons and transfer them to wires, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). At that point, the electrons can flow like any other source of electricity.

Researchers have produced ultrathin, flexible solar cells that are only 1.3 microns thick — about 1/100th the width of a human hair — and are 20 times lighter than a sheet of office paper. In fact, the cells are so light that they can sit on top of a soap bubble, and yet they produce energy with about as much efficiency as glass-based solar cells, scientists reported in a study published in 2016 in the journal Organic Electronics. Lighter, more flexible solar cells such as these could be integrated into architecture, aerospace technology, or even wearable electronics.

There are other types of solar power technology — including solar thermal and concentrated solar power (CSP) — that operate in a different fashion than photovoltaic solar panels, but all harness the power of sunlight to either create electricity or to heat water or air.

Photovoltaic (PV) or solar cells convert sunlight into electricity. When light strikes the semiconductor material of a solar cell, it releases electrons that generate electric current.

A solar panel or PV panel is a frame with several connected solar cells. The more solar panels are connected together, the more electricity is produced.

Solar panels produce direct current (DC), not alternating current (AC) electricity. We connect the solar panels to an inverter, which changes the current from DC to AC electricity.

This clean electricity from the sun can replace power from the national grid or a generator and eliminates all the harm of power from fossil fuels.

Interesting to know

The grid is the electricity supplied nationally by Municipalities in South Africa (through Eskom) and by various utility companies elsewhere.

A kilowatt (kW) equals 1 000 watt (W) and is a unit of power.

A kilowatt hour (kWh) is a unit of energy. It is not the number of kW used per hour – it is the amount of energy used to keep a 1 000 W appliance running for an hour. For example, a 100 W light bulb would use 1 kWh in 10 hours; a 2 000 W appliance would use 1 kWh in half an hour; a 50 W item would use 1 kWh in 20 hours.

Renewable energy comes from sources that cannot run out (such as the sun) or can be easily replaced (such as new vegetation being planted). Renewable energy is carbon neutral and does not produce carbon compounds and greenhouse gases when consumed. Renewable energy therefore does not pollute the environment: it causes no air, land or water pollution.

A grid-interactive PV system is still connected to the national grid, although it draws clean energy from solar panels. This system can feed clean energy directly into the grid, lowering your dependence on the grid and decreasing your electricity bill. It also charges solar batteries for use during power failures.

Deep-cycle batteries store energy from the sun for use when the sun is not shining. They are called “deep cycle” because they can survive long periods of being repeatedly and deeply discharged to almost their entire capacity.


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