How Do Solar Panels Work Step-By-Step (Solar Science Explained)

How do solar panels work step-by-step?

At first, the science of solar energy is mystifying.

How exactly do solar photovoltaic (PV) panels magically transform common sunlight into useable electricity?

Well, when you dig a little deeper and dissect the panel (quite literally), you’ll find that it all starts to make a bit more sense.

The aim of this article is to uncover just how solar panels work, and what the benefits of using solar energy can have on our planet.

Let’s dive in!

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Brief History Of Solar Panels

The solar panel’s humble beginnings can be traced back over 100 years.

Back in the day, solar energy’s primary job was to help assist with the production of steam (hello industrial revolution) which could then be used to power machinery.

It wasn’t until Edmond Becquerel made the discovery of the photovoltaic effect, that sunlight would start being converted into solar electricity.

It was Becquerel’s discovery that led Charles Fritts to invent the world’s first genuine solar cell in 1893.

In 1941 an American inventor known as Russel Ohl patented the first silicon solar cell. Ohl’s invention led to the very first solar panel being invented in 1954.

Solar panels unsurprisingly found their first job far away from earth, way up in space in satellites.

Perhaps you remember your very own first encounter with solar panels, it was likely to be the one embedded in your new calculator!

how do solar panels work

What Is A Solar Panel?

what is a solar panel?

A solar panel is usually comprised of 6 different elements:

  1. Silicon solar cells
  2. Metal frame (typically aluminum)
  3. Glass sheet for protection and casing
  4. Standard 12V Wire
  5. Bus wire
  6. Plexiglas

Silicon solar cells are the main component of a solar panel and are responsible for converting sunlight into solar electricity.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Hybrid Solar System Australia | Arise Solar

As already discussed, the main and most important part of a solar panel is the silicon solar cells.

Silicon has the atomic number 14 on the periodic table. It is non-metal with conductive properties that allow the element to convert sunlight into electricity.

When light interacts with a silicon cell, it forces the electrons inside of it to move, this movement initiates a flow of electricity.

This process is known as the “photovoltaic effect”.

It goes without saying though that silicon cells on their own can’t really provide your campervan or home with electricity.

In order for the solar cell’s electrons to escape and supply useful power, it needs to be paired with special wiring and a metal casing.

It’s also worth mentioning that solar panels come in different cell structures which we’ll go into more detail about later on in the article.

Step-By-Step Process On How Solar Panels Work

Step 1. The sun’s rays make contact with the solar panel and an electric field is created.

Step 2. The solar electricity generated flows from the silicon cells to the edge of the panel, and into the conductive wire.

Step 3. The conductive wire delivers the electricity to an inverter. inside the inverter, the electricity is converted from DC to AC which is used to power buildings, vans, and motorboats.

Step 4. Once the electricity has been converted to AC, another wire transports the electricity to a breaker box which distributes the electricity throughout the building as required.

Different Types Of Solar Panels

There are 3 types of solar panels – polycrystalline, monocrystalline, and amorphous silicon.

Below we will go into more detail on each one:

Monocrystalline solar panels


Monocrystalline solar panels are made up of one large silicon block. Monocrystalline silicon cells are known to be more efficient than polycrystalline or amorphous silicon. The production process for monocrystalline solar panels is much more labor-intensive, as such these panels are usually more expensive than their counterparts. You can easily recognize monocrystalline cells thanks to their distinct black aesthetic.

Polycrystalline solar panels


Polycrystalline solar cells are also silicon cells, however, instead of being formed into a large block, they are instead the end product of melting multiple silicon cells together. Once melted the silicon molecules are fused together into the panel itself. Polycrystalline solar panels are less efficient than mono cells and as such are also less expensive. You can notice poly solar panels by their conventional bluish hue.

Amorphous Silicon

Amorphous Silicon

Amorphous Silicon cells are used to create the newer flexible solar panels. Amorphous silicon cells are non-crystalline. Instead, they’re attached to materials like glass, plastic, or metal. They are usually very thin and because of this are lean and pliable. Although these solar panels can be quite practical, they are very inefficient when compared to monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels

What Are The Benefits Of Using Solar Energy?

Advantages of Solar EnergyDisadvantages of Solar Energy
Renewable Energy SourceInstallation Cost
Lowers Electricity BillsWeather Dependent
Many ApplicationsEnergy Storage is Expensive
Affordable Maintenance CostsTakes up a lot of space
Tech DevelopmentAssociated with Landfill Pollution

Renewable Energy Source

Solar energy is a true, clean, renewable energy source, unlike many other sources of energy.

Solar can be harnessed from anywhere on earth and is available almost every day.

Solar energy will be available for as long as we have the sun. Which, according to scientists should be for at least another 7 to 8 billion years!

Lowers Electricity Bills

Solar panels will allow you to use less of the grid’s energy supply which in turn will reduce your monthly utility bills.

Just how much it is reduced all depends on the size of the solar kit set up you have installed at your home.

Many Applications

Solar energy can be used for electricity (photovoltaics), yes that we all know. However, it can be used for heat (solar thermal) too.

Solar thermal can be used to distill water in regions with limited clean water supplies.

In the future, solar will most likely be introduced in mass to building materials – think solar bricks!

Affordable Maintenance Costs

If you install solar panels from a reliable company such as Renogy, you’ll likely see them last between 20 to 25 years.

Maintenance includes a simple cleaning every week to make sure you are maximizing your panel’s solar absorption rate.

As there are no moving parts there is generally no wear and tear, the only thing that will need to be replaced is the inverter, but you can do this every 5 to 10 years or so.

This means after your initial investment into solar energy, you can expect very little ongoing costs to maintain the equipment.

Tech Development

In the future, we will no doubt see advances in quantum physics and nanotechnology.

This would greatly enhance the effectiveness of solar panels and double, or perhaps even triple, the electrical input of the solar systems!

Final Thoughts

We hope this article sheds some more light on the question “how do solar panels work?”.

Make sure to let us know how your experience with solar energy has been so far in the comments section below.

Romain Metaye, PhD

Romain Metaye, PhD

Dr Metaye has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Ecole Polytechnique, France. He is a renewable energy expert with more than 11 years of experience within the research world. During his career, he supervised more than 150 projects on clean energy. Off-grid smart systems, solar energy, battery and the hydrogen economy are among his specialties.

1 Comment
  1. Interesting read! Love that you add different types of solar panels.

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