Solar panels are flat collections of solar cells that are used to catch the Sun’s energy and use it to create electricity and heat.
What Are Solar Panels?
Solar panels are flat collections of solar cells that are used to catch the Sun’s energy and use it to create electricity and heat. Because the sun’s energy is so spread out it takes a collection of solar cells to generate enough energy to make electricity or heat. Solar panels come in different sizes and shapes so that they can be used on a variety of different types of buildings but no matter what shape or size they are the basic design of a solar panel is the same.
How do solar cells work?
Solar cells are wafers made of a semi-conductive material, usually silicon, combined with rarer elements such as phosphorus and boron. The silicon is what grabs the energy from the sun and traps it to be used for electricity while the phosphorus and the boron help excite the molecules and intensify the energy that is coming into the cell. When the sun’s rays hit the silicon and are channeled through the cell the molecules excite and travel through an attached electrical circuit, creating electricity.
Solar panels convert anywhere from about 14% to about 22% of the sun’s energy that hits the panel into electricity. That doesn’t seem like a lot of electricity produced but the amount of electricity that a solar panel can generate also depends on where the panel is positioned and how much direct sun it gets. When there is no sun or the panel isn’t in the directly sunlight it gets little or no sun and will produce little or no electricity. The low efficiency of solar cells is a problem to their large-scale use. It takes many large solar panels of solar cells to provide enough electricity to power a house or a building.
Solar panels produce electricity that can be used for lighting but solar panel energy can also be used to heat a home or building. A solar thermal heating system consists of solar panels that are arranged in a specific spot where the solar panel energy is used to heat a tank of water. The hot water runs under the floors of the house, heating them, and then the water is piped back to the tank to be heated again.
Thermal solar heating systems work very well and are a cost effective and environmentally friendly alternative to expensive gas or electric heating systems. Solar thermal energy is often used quite a bit by people that have pools and outdoor hot tubs to heat the water they use. It’s a lot less expensive to heat a large pool or a hot tub with thermal solar energy than it is to use fossil fuel heaters that can cost a fortune.
What Are Solar Photovoltaic Systems?
Solar photovoltaic systems, or PV systems, are the components in a solar cell that actually grab the energy from the sun and turn it into energy. PV systems are the fastest growing area of technology in the world and production of solar cells that use PV systems has been consistently doubling about every two years. Mainly this is due to rising interest solar energy and the desire of more people to buy solar panels to create their own electricity and heat for their homes. The demand for improved solar power technology encourages governments and businesses to invest time and money into improving the technology and making it more cost efficient.
Some governments around the world, especially in Europe, are giving financial incentives both to companies that are working on developing PV systems and making them more efficient and less costly to the average consumer and also to the consumers that buy them. Because PV solar cells are still relatively new when it comes to solar energy the cost of a solar panel containing PV cells is still fairly high in most places. Also, one solar panel is not usually enough to power an entire home which makes using solar PV systems even more costly for the average homeowner.
The good news is that more and more homes are being built with PV systems already installed which makes it easier and less costly for consumers to buy environmentally friendly homes that run on solar power. Businesses that want to operate factories more cost effectively and in a more environmentally friendly way while collecting some nice government incentives are also installing solar PV energy systems. Germany is currently the biggest market for solar PV systems with the United States, Australia and Spain not far behind.
Solar PV systems are being used successfully around the world to power devices like roadside signs, traffic lights, emergency phones, and other stand alone devices that might be difficult to power using traditional electricity or batteries. Solar PV energy has proved enormously successful at powering these devices. Using solar PV systems in these types of devices and in other everyday machines like parking meters has saved many cities and towns a lot of money because they don’t need to send out regular maintenance crews to make sure that these things are still running properly.
Critics of solar PV systems say that while the solar energy produced by the PV cells doesn’t have any harmful effects to the environment the production of these cells does result in some pollution. Advocates of the solar PV cells say that they are working on developing a type of PV energy cell the production of which won’t produce any pollution. While the production of the cells does create some pollution it doesn’t create as much pollution as other types of materials do when manufactured or used to create energy.
The History of Solar Panels
Photovoltaic power was first discovered by a French scientist, Antoine Becquerel, in 1839. Many scientists that followed experimented with solar power and tried to build a device that would capture the sun’s energy and redirect it but they were not able to find a way to make a working PV cell. The solar cell was first successfully made by the scientist, Charles Fritts, in 1882. Since they didn’t have the same types of materials that we have today the first working solar cell was made of thin sheets of Selenium, a mineral, that were then coated with gold.
Even though the use of solar panels for generating electricity and heat seems like a relatively new development it’s actually been widely used to generate power since the early 1900’s. Photos from that period show a series of parabola shaped “sun catchers” that would harness the power of the sun and focus it on water tanks. Once the water was heated it made steam which was used to power farm machinery. The solar heated water created enough steam to power 55 horsepower machinery which was cutting edge at the time.
Then, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, businesses found that they could use the sun’s energy to heat water which created steam to power the machines in the factories. At that time solar energy was considered the wave of the future and a lot of companies began developing better ways to use the sun’s energy until after WWI when fossil fuels became more attractive to companies and farm owners to run their machinery.
The first working silicon solar cell didn’t come along until 1941 when an employee at a Bell laboratory, Russell Ohl, patented his design for a silicon based PV cell. In 1954, Bell labs mass produced the first crystal silicon solar cell. The Bell PV cell converted 4% of the sun’s energy into electricity a rate that was considered the cutting edge in energy technology.
Scientists continued to reinvent and rework the design of the original silicon PV cell and were eventually able to produce a solar cell that was capable of putting out a 20% return electricity rate. In the 1980’s solar cell technology was being used almost exclusively for space travel.
The use of solar power in space is a natural given that spacecraft can’t burn fossil fuels in the vacuum of space and in space the rays of the sun are not reduced by the Earth’s atmosphere and clouds. In the late 1990’s as awareness grew in the science community about the effects of global warming and the need for renewable energy sources scientists continued to refine the silicon PV cell until by early 2000 they were able to make a solar cell with 24% electricity return.
In just 7 years scientists were again able to increase the electricity return of the silicon solar cell using space age materials. By 2007, modern silicon PV solar cells were operating with a 28% electricity return. As scientists continue to make better solar cells it will become more common and more cost effective for homeowners to use solar cells and solar panels to power their homes.
Types of Solar Panels
Currently there are four main types of solar panels that you can easily purchase and install on your home to generate electricity or heat your home. They are Monocrystalline Silicon Panels, Polycrystalline Silicon Panels, String Ribbon Silicon Panels, and Amorphous Silicon Panels.
Monocrystalline Silicon Panels – Monocrystalline (or single-crystal) silicon solar panels have a return electricity rate of anywhere from 14% to 18%. These panels are made from one continuous sheet of silicon that has pieces of metal nailed to the edges to increase the conductivity and to excite the electrons.
Monocrystalline panels are more expensive than some of the other types of solar panels that you can buy but they are also more effective, so in the long run you’re better off buying these panels if you can afford the up front cost.
Polycrystalline Silicon Panels – Polycrystalline (or multi-crystal) silicon panes have an electricity return rate of about 12%-14% so they are less efficient than monocrystalline silicon solar panels. These panels are made up of lots of individual PV cells that have metal conducting materials nailed to the sides that will help excite the electrons and also connect the cells together.
Polycrystalline silicon panels are the cheapest solar panels to produce so they are usually the cheapest for consumers to buy. The maintenance costs of polycrystalline silicon panels is lower than the maintenance cost of monocrystalline solar panels because if one of the cells on a polycrystalline panel is damaged you can have the individual cell replaced without having to replace the entire panel.
String Ribbon Silicon Panels – String ribbon silicon panels are made in a similar way to the polycrystalline silicon panels and have about the same electricity return rate. The difference between string ribbon silicon panels and polycrystalline silicon panels is that the PV cells in a string ribbon panel are made of strips of silicon attached to metal bars that connect the strips to form a cell. Using strips of silicon to form the cell instead of using one solid square of silicon make the production cost of string ribbon silicon panels a bit lower than the production cost of polycrystalline silicon panels.
Amorphous Silicon Panels – Amorphous silicon panels have the lowest electricity return rate of any type of solar panels. Traditionally amorphous silicon solar panels have an electricity return rate of between 5%-6%. That’s because these panels aren’t made with crystalline silicon. They are composed of a piece of semi conductive metal, like copper, with a thin silicon film over the top that is attached to some metal pieces.
These panels are very cheap to produce but when you’re buying solar panels for home use you need to consider the long term efficiency of the type of panel that you’re buying. Unfortunately, though cheap to begin with they do not produce much energy, therefore amorphous silicon panels are not going to be cost effective in the long run.
Solar Panel Shingles
If you’re building a new home or if you are replacing the roof on your house you might want to consider using solar panel shingles for your roof. Solar panel shingles are cutting edge technology that only recently hit the consumer market.
Solar panel shingles are the same size as traditional asphalt shingles but they are actually small PV solar cells. They fit together like traditional roof shingles. You can also use a combination of solar panel shingles and traditional shingles if you can’t afford to do your entire roof in solar panel shingles although you won’t get a very high return electricity rate if you use just a few solar panel shingles.
Solar panel shingles are weather resistant and function just like normal shingles except that they also can provide clean, environmentally safe and free solar energy to power and heat your home. Using an entire rooftop of solar panel shingles is usually more than enough energy to power your home except for some exceptionally large appliances like a washer and dryer.
Solar panel shingles aren’t cheap, but they can help you save money on energy costs over time. Here are some of the other benefits of using solar panel shingles to power your home:
• Solar shingles are easy to integrate with existing roof structures and shingles.
• Solar shingles fit into any design style.
• Solar shingles can decrease your electricity bill significantly, sometime by more than half.
• Solar shingles are environmentally friendly.
• There are lots of state and Federal Green Building financial incentives to use solar shingles.
• Solar shingles will increase the resale value of your home.
• Solar shingles are a smart long term investment in your home equity.
• Solar shingles are easy to install.
• Solar shingles have at least a 20-year output meaning you won’t have to roof your home again for probably 20 years.
A report by DailyTech states that at present, both parties are working to commercialise the technology. It is thought that the cells could be used to replace traditional panels in solar windows, solar shingles or other solar installations. More
The best efficiencies in available high-end monocrystalline silicon panels are about 19 percent, according to Sheppard. Look for thin-film technologies in BIPV (built-in photovoltaic) systems like roofing shingles. This year Dow Chemical will introduce its Powerhouse Solar roofing shingles, with the solar panels provided by Global Solar. The flexible CIGS panels are built right into asphalt shingles. More
Pinhero believes that such 90-95% efficient solar panels could be built and offered to be manufactured into products such as roof shingles or automobiles. The scientist is now looking for funding to develop and mature the technology.
Solar Panels and The Environment
You already know that switching to solar energy can have a big effect on the environment, but you might be wondering just how big an effect. After all, can one person or one family switching to solar energy for heat and electricity really make that much of a difference on the environment?
Yes! One person or one family can save 20,000 tons of greenhouse gas from polluting the environment just by using solar energy to heat your hot water and heat your home. 20,000 tons is a lot of greenhouse gases! And that’s just if one home just switches to solar energy. Imagine the decrease in greenhouse gases that could happen if 20,000 people per year switched to using solar energy to heat their hot water and heat their home. Add to that the effects of reducing energy consumption by 50% if you use solar energy for electricity and suddenly the impact on the environment is enormous.
In addition to reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that you put out switching to solar energy has a big impact on the environment because you will be reducing the amount of fossil fuels that you are using. Fossil fuels are very bad pollutants and contribute directly to poor air quality and other environmental problems.
The environment isn’t just hurt by people burning fossil fuels for energy. The environment is also hurt by what is necessary to get those fossil fuels. Enormous portions of the earth need to be dug up, processing plants and refineries built, and natural ecosystems destroyed all over the planet just to get to the fossil fuels that are buried in the earth. Most of the pristine wilderness is gone in any country that has natural deposits of fossil fuels because of the ever-growing demand that countries around the world have for fossil fuels.
When fossil fuels are processed there is a huge amount of solid waste, much of it toxic, that is left behind. This waste takes up space in landfills and then seeps into groundwater while the runoff flows to the waterways polluting the water and the soil. The carbon dioxide and other gases that are released poison the air for miles around the processing plants of these fossil fuels.
Solar energy might not solve all of the environmental problems that we face as a result of the overuse of fossil fuel but it’s a start. Just having a few thousand people per year switch to using solar energy to heat and power their homes will be a big step towards creating a safer, cleaner environment for everyone. And since the costs of buying and installing solar panes is dropping all the time soon it will be a lot more common for homes to use solar energy for their power needs.
The Benefits of Using Solar Energy In Your Home
There are many benefits to the environment when people use solar energy to heat and power their homes. There are also many benefits for homeowners. At first the cost on installing a solar array so that you can solar energy at home might seem very expensive but over time the solar energy panels will more than pay for themselves. Still not sure that solar panels are right for you? Here are just a few of the benefits of switching to solar energy in your home:
• Solar panels last a long time – If your solar panel array is installed properly it can last for 20 years or longer. Proper maintenance is required to keep it functioning well but the solar panels themselves shouldn’t need to be replaced for at least 20 years. Solar roof shingles can last even longer depending on the type of climate that you live in.
• Solar panels create quiet energy – The heat and electricity generated by solar panels is practically noiseless so you will be making your home a lot quieter to live in when you switch to solar energy.
• Solar panels are one of the most low maintenance home improvements – Solar panels do require some maintenance but overall they are pretty easy to take care of. After they are installed if you check them regularly for damage and replace any broken or damaged PV cells you shouldn’t have to do much more maintenance on them.
• Solar panels can protect your roof and siding – Since the solar panel array shades the house it means that your roof and siding will last longer because the solar panels will act as a buffer between your home and the elements.
• Increased home value – Installing solar panels is really an investment in your home because the resale value of your home will rise significantly once you have solar panels. There is a lot of interest in living in a more environmentally responsible way these days and customers that are looking for new homes are concerned about the impact of their homes on the environment. Having solar power is quite a draw for home buyers.
• Solar energy saves money. Even though installing solar panels isn’t cheap once the solar panels start to create energy you will start to see a huge savings in your monthly electric bills and heating bills. You can end up paying next to nothing or even nothing at all for electricity. That is probably the biggest reason that so many homeowners are considering switching to solar energy.
How Much Money Can Installing Solar Panels Really Save?
For most homeowners the decision about whether or not to install solar panels really comes down to the cost of the solar panels and installation versus the long term savings that using solar energy can provide. So how cost effective is it to install solar panels?
No one can calculate exactly how much money you can save by using solar energy because energy prices fluctuate and there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration. But, many homeowners that have switched to using solar energy report that they have cut their energy bills from usually 50% to as high as 90% which can add up to a lot of money saved over the course of 20 years.
Another factor to keep in mind when you are considering buying solar panels for your home is that homeowners can usually get large grants and rebates from state and Federal programs to help defray the cost of buying solar panels. So you might be able to install solar panels in your home for a lot less than retail price if you quality to take advantage of those incentives. Many solar panel dealers will help you fill out the paperwork necessary to get those rebates and grants.
If you are building a new home then the cost of buying and installing solar panels for energy can be folded into your home loan or home mortgage so that you won’t have to put in any money up front to install them. Since the solar panels will be part of the home and will add value to the home most mortgage companies look at the cost of solar panels as a home improvement.
If you have a pre-existing home that you want to fit with solar panels you can take out a mortgage or secure a home equity line of credit to finance the up front cost of the solar panels and the monthly energy savings that you have as a result should more than pay for the loan payments. The home improvement of adding solar panels also increases the value of the property.
Once the solar panels are installed it takes awhile for the cost of the installation to be absorbed but after that point the amount of money that you save can be hundreds of dollars per month depending on the price of electricity and how much electricity you use. An existing home usually reaches the “payoff point” where the solar panels have paid for themselves in savings after about 6-8 years. A new home will reach the payoff point almost immediately.