Updated: Sep 9, 2019
It’s a known fact that solar energy plays a major role in a sustainable future, but have you ever stopped to think how solar actually works?
There is so much potential in solar power; cutting carbon pollution, empowering communities, creating more jobs and putting extra money in your pocket. But perhaps one of the major barriers to adopting solar energy is a lack of general knowledge around how we actually get sunshine into a lightbulb.
Here is a simple guide to how solar energy works.
The solar power system
To make solar power, you essentially need 3 things: a solar panel, an inverter and a switchboard. The solar panel (which needs to be placed, you guessed it, in the sun) converts sunlight to electricity by allowing photons (tiny particles of light) to free electrons from their atoms. This creates a flow of energy.
This kind of electrical energy is called DC (direct current) electricity, which needs to be converted to AC (alternating current) electricity before you can use it in your average household appliances. That’s where your inverter comes in. The inverter converts the DC energy to AC, which is then sent to your lights and appliances by the system’s switchboard.
Fun fact: You’ll often see a solar system referred to as a solar PV system, which stands for solar photovoltaic system. Photovoltaic simply means the system converts sunlight into electricity.
Solar systems and the grid
Most systems sold in Australia are connected to your area’s larger electricity grid (and so require an additional grid feed inverter). In a grid feed system, energy produced by your solar system will supply your home and its appliances first, and then, if there’s any extra, it will feed electricity back into the larger grid.
On the flip side, if your solar system isn’t producing enough electricity to power your home entirely, the grid feed inverter will draw excess energy from the larger grid.
A solar battery is basically sunshine insurance. An additional battery inverter and battery bank plugs in to your standard solar system set up, which enables you to store extra electricity produced by your system (before it feeds back into the grid) for you to use at night or during power outages.
Different batteries will require different components in order to integrate them into your system, and there is often more than one way to skin the sun. Some options can be a little expensive, so it’s best to talk with your solar system provider to work out the best option for your needs.
How long do solar systems last?
Short answer, a really long time. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study on “photovoltaic degradation” from 2012 found that your average solar system loses about 0.5 per cent efficiency every year. That means after 10 years, the system would still be working at around 95% capacity. After 20 years, it would still be working at around 90% capacity. Not bad!
How does solar save?
Aside from saving the planet by cutting energy coming from carbon polluting fossil fuels, solar systems save you cold hard cash. When you’re producing your own energy, you’re buying less from big energy retailers. And in many cases, you can even sell the energy you don’t use back to the grid. It literally puts the power back in your hands.
On average solar will typically save you 20-30% off your energy bill.
On top of this, according to a 2015 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, solar power systems can increase the value of your home.
Looking further than our own backyards, solar energy systems have the potential to empower communities all over the world by creating new jobs, helping families cook meals more safely, and allowing children to read and learn after the sun goes down. This in turn has amazingly positive impacts on health, education and economic outcomes.
Solar power for the win!