Infographic with solar panels titled "How Solar Power Works"

How Solar Power Works [Infographic]

Check out our infographic to learn about how solar works, the current state of U.S. solar capacity and growth, and what the future holds.

Solar power has been all over the news recently. Coverage ranges from the Biden administration’s import tariff to agrivoltaic farming to solar-powered cryptomining to the prevalence of electric vehicles (EVs) relying on panels to charge. 

But what exactly is solar energy? Well, it’s a form of alternative energy — the most abundant source on Earth — that uses energy from the sun to generate electricity. 

Solar energy has gained significant attention lately because it can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel dependence. But to understand how solar technology produces solar energy, it’s important to explore the process. That process goes from the initial capture of sunlight to its conversion into usable electricity for your home or business.

The first step in harnessing solar energy is capturing sunlight. Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic (PV) panels, are the primary devices we use to do this. These panels comprise numerous individual solar cells (typically composed of silicon) that convert sunlight into electricity. When sunlight hits these solar cells, it excites the electrons within the cells, which causes them to flow and generate a direct current (DC).

To convert solar cell-generated DC electricity into usable alternating current (AC) electricity, you need an inverter. Inverters transform DC electricity into AC electricity, which is the standard form of electricity we use in homes, businesses and industrial structures. AC electricity doesn’t simply keep your lights on — you can also use it to power devices and appliances in and on your property.

However, solar energy production doesn’t stop at solar panels and inverters. Other components play crucial roles in ensuring solar energy systems run efficiently and stay functional. 

One truly essential component is a mounting system. It provides structural support for the solar panels and allows installers to place them on roofs, mount them on the ground or even attach them to walls at an optimal angle to receive maximum sunlight.

Furthermore, solar energy production requires an energy storage system or connection to the power grid. When your system generates excess energy but your property doesn’t use it, backup power solutions such as batteries (like the SunPower SunVault or Tesla Powerwall) can store that extra electricity for later use. 

So when sunlight isn’t readily available for conversion (such as on cloudy days or at night), you can use stored solar energy as a backup power source. Alternatively, installers can connect solar panel systems to the power grid, which is typical because most solar panel systems are hybrid systems. This allows the system to feed excess energy back into the grid, and the owner receives credits — a process called net metering.

It’s also worth mentioning that tracking systems enhance solar energy production. Solar tracking systems (such as the mySunPower monitoring app) enable solar panels to follow the sun’s movement throughout the day, maximizing the amount of sunlight they receive. By continuously adjusting position, solar panels can maintain an ideal angle with the sun, which leads to increased energy production.

With so much buzz in the solar industry, we thought it might be useful to go back to the basics. Because let’s face it, it’s easy to get carried away with the latest technologies and shiny, new features. But having a solid understanding of how solar power works in the first place is invaluable. 

Check out our infographic below to find answers to your questions. We explain key issues:

  • How solar cells, panels and inverters work
  • The current state of U.S. solar capacity and growth
  • What the future holds for an industry showing no signs of slowing down 

But please note that the data in this infographic is according to 2021 statistics. There will always be new numbers to date, but our infographic gives you a sound foundation to understand the recent state of solar energy and its production — and most importantly, going solar.