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How Do Solar Panels Work?

Michael Pollick
Updated: May 23, 2024

Whether on a solar-powered calculator or an international space station, solar panels generate electricity using the same principles of electronics as chemical batteries or standard electrical outlets. With solar panels, it's all about the free flow of electrons through a circuit.

To understand how these panels generate electrical power, it might help to take a quick trip back to high school chemistry class. The basic element of solar panels is the same element that helped create the computer revolution -- pure silicon. When silicon is stripped of all impurities, it makes a ideal neutral platform for the transmission of electrons. Silicon also has some atomic-level properties which make it even more attractive for the creation of solar panels.

Silicon atoms have room for eight electrons in their outer bands, but only carry four in their natural state. This means there is room for four more electrons. If one silicon atom contacts another silicon atom, each receives the other atom's four electrons. This creates a strong bond, but there is no positive or negative charge because the eight electrons satisfy the atoms' needs. Silicon atoms can combine for years to result in a large piece of pure silicon. This material is used to form the plates of the panels.

Here's where science enters the picture. Two plates of pure silicon would not generate electricity in solar panels, because they have no positive or negative charge. Solar panels are created by combining silicon with other elements that do have positive or negative charges.

Phosphorus, for example, has five electrons to offer to other atoms. If silicon and phosphorus are combined chemically, the result is a stable eight electrons with an additional free electron along for the ride. It can't leave, because it is bonded to the other phosphorus atoms, but it isn\'t needed by the silicon. Therefore, this new silicon/phosphorus plate is considered to be negatively charged.

In order for electricity to flow, a positive charge must also be created. This is achieved by combining silicon with an element such as boron, which only has three electrons to offer. A silicon/boron plate still has one spot left for another electron. This means the plate has a positive charge. The two plates are sandwiched together in the panels, with conductive wires running between them.

With the two plates in place, it's now time to bring in the 'solar' aspect of solar panels. Natural sunlight sends out many different particles of energy, but the one we're most interested in is called a photon. A photon essentially acts like a moving hammer. When the negative plates of solar cells are pointed at a proper angle to the sun, photons bombard the silicon/phosphorus atoms.

Eventually, the 9th electron, which wants to be free anyway, is knocked off the outer ring. This electron doesn't remain free for long, since the positive silicon/boron plate draws it into the open spot on its own outer band. As the sun's photons break off more electrons, electricity is generated. The electricity generated by one solar cell is not very impressive, but when all of the conductive wires draw the free electrons away from the plates, there is enough electricity to power low amperage motors or other electronics. Whatever electrons are not used or lost to the air are returned to the negative plate and the entire process begins again.

One of the main problems with using solar panels is the small amount of electricity they generate compared to their size. A calculator might only require a single solar cell, but a solar-powered car would require several thousand. If the angle of the panels is changed even slightly, the efficiency can drop 50 percent.

Some power from solar panels can be stored in chemical batteries, but there usually isn't much excess power in the first place. The same sunlight that provides photons also provides more destructive ultraviolet and infrared waves, which eventually cause the panels to degrade physically. The panels must also be exposed to destructive weather elements, which can also seriously affect efficiency.

Many sources also refer to solar panels as photovoltaic cells, which references the importance of light (photos) in the generation of electrical voltage. The challenge for future scientists will be to create more efficient panels are small enough for practical applications and powerful enough to create excess energy for times when sunlight is not available.

The Solar Panel Guide is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Solar Panel Guide, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon306054 — On Nov 28, 2012

Solar actually hasn't reduced my bills by very much at all.

By anon294506 — On Oct 02, 2012

@Post 132: It is true that most of today's current silicon-based photovoltaic technology is obsolete, or at least not as environmentally friendly as everyone assumes because of the production process, but this should be thought of as a step towards better photovoltaic cells that are quicker, easier and cheaper to manufacture while maintaining efficiency.

This is the case with the newly developed so termed "Organic" photovoltaic technology, which is manufactured using acrylic or glass and rhenium-telluride solution as a semi-conductor. This rhenium-telluride solution is actually just pen ink and as such it will cost very little. Yet this silicon technology was its basis and should therefore be heralded as a forerunner of better things, not criticized because it doesn't fit our current needs in its current form.

By anon293519 — On Sep 26, 2012

This information has helped my family make an informative decision about solar panel heating. Thank you very much! I can't wait to start saving money!

By anon284483 — On Aug 10, 2012

Look at post 123. He does point out something most people won't consider. However, he forgets to take note that solar panels pay their way in a couple of years and from then on they continue to generate quite a bit of revenue, unlike coal or gas.

Also, he forgets the aspect of cost of pollution, like how much does CO2 cost and sulfur dioxide that is produced for burning coal. In any case, solar is not completely clean. However, by far it is cleaner then fossil fuels, and will never run out.

By anon277735 — On Jul 01, 2012

Every solar company states that the panels needs to "sense" grid power before they can generate power. That is in case of a grid power outage, the solar panels won't generate power which could injure the power employees. However, in the case of a grid outage, the solar homeowner is left without power.

What's the truth? Sounds like the panels need grid power to work. And there should be an automatic cutoff for this purpose of allowing the homeowner to have power during the daylight hours.

By anon252259 — On Mar 05, 2012

If I want to experiment by creating a 15-watt solar lamp, how and where do I begin? I am a novice to this but really interested. How many solar cells per panel is required and how do I begin with this.

Please suggest any sites/documents related to this. --Lucky

By anon244189 — On Jan 31, 2012

Good article and I liked it, but somewhere I heard that there is interference of water also in this procedure.

By anon243864 — On Jan 30, 2012

If phosphorus is used, then the solar panel becomes negatively charged. Then boron is used to make it positively charged.

Is it necessary for the solar panel to be positively charged or is there any stimulant to it?

By anon243857 — On Jan 30, 2012

Where can you learn the most about solar panels?

By anon238956 — On Jan 06, 2012

So I asked a pretty simple question...why couldn't it be answered? I just wanted a clear answer....Other than that,It's a great site. Great for students with science questions.

By anon238064 — On Jan 01, 2012

@anon105856: You asked how come the hotter it is, the less energy you can get and that it would make more since you thought that it would work better in the heat. The solar panels work off light, not heat.

Wires are rated for current, and the amount of current a wire can carry is determined by the thickness, and also the temperature as well. This is why you want to have fans and heatsinks for your computer's processor.

At certain sub zero temperatures (I can't remember exactly how low) wires act like superconductors and can use a very thin wire and carry almost infinite current.

By cbferguson08 — On Jun 20, 2011

For those of you quoting "solar energy is the way to go and will save our world," you have to realize that these solar panels not only cost a boatload of money (already discussed and others agree with me that they will never pay for themselves), they also are not environmentally friendly.

Like everything in this world, solar panels must be produced. From the rock in the ground (silicon) to the highly refined, processed, delicate solar panel you buy to install in your home is many, many industrial steps. Each process required energy (from fossil fuel sources) as well as pollution. There is an article online which sums up a 300-plus page report of a study done on the pollution from making solar cells.

In this report, it states that the amount of pollution generated to "producing the same amount of electricity by fossil fuel generates at least 10 times as much greenhouse gasses." This is assuming the cells last long enough to pay for themselves at current electricity prices.

This report does give some possibility of solar cells to be useful in the long run such as use solar cells to make solar cells, but the initial "cost" both financially and environmentally would be detrimental overall. The amount that we can press the environment to its limits by making these solar cells should be established before the world decides to "make global solar power."

I work for a utility supplying electricity now, and solar cells are rarely considered due to the severe costs. However, no one ever looks at the prior end of how much pollution is required to actually make these cells, and if they are really "eco-friendly."

By anon164697 — On Apr 02, 2011

Great article! Yes, you are right, the electricity generated by solar panel is small compared to the size of panel. Maybe the technology in the future will find a way about how to rapidly increase the electricity power by decrease the number of solar cells.

By anon160832 — On Mar 17, 2011

These things work, and work quietly. We've installed two arrays of 39 panels each, each having it's own 6,000 watt inverter. This is a 12KW system, and it will deliver that in direct sun. They work much better in the cold -- about 125 percent of rated output at 10-20 degrees F, but only 85 percent of rated output at about 90-100 degrees F. Like an overheated motor, they lose efficiency as they heat up.

We've had up to 85KW hours produced in a single day in winter (upstate NY, with snow reflection off the ground). This system is ground-mounted, as you can work on things better and you may be replacing your roof shingles someday, and you don't want them up there if you're shoveling snow off the roof. Also, hardly any roof is facing directly south, which is the best scenario for the panels.

The grants were there in abundance before the government went broke, so we were subsidized well. With the bi-directional meter, the power company can't charge you more for what went in to you than they pay for what went out to them, as there is no record of which way anything went -- just one number on the meter tells who owes who what in terms of KWhours. We have no power bill, there is a surplus of energy going into grid, which is "banked" there until we need it, and are now looking into a plug-in hybrid car that will be charged at home using the sun for our energy source. This can be done, folks, but you need grants to make it worthwhile.

By anon160076 — On Mar 14, 2011

I've fitted a 36kw ground mount system and in the middle of winter on the day we fired it up it peaked at 31kw! Solar power works!

By anon156385 — On Feb 27, 2011

I am an installer for Kenergy solar. The hot water heaters work great. the collectors can heat up over 400 degrees. there is no need for battery systems on your house. put a net meter, which is required by law, in the line. it reads how much is produced. the electric is done over a month. you use 40 kw a month and it produces 39kw you owe for 1kw. if it produces 41kw the electric company owes you for 1kw. they have to pay the same amount they charge.

Also most systems will pay for themselves within 7-10 years. the bad news is this stuff cost a ton of money. --Gary

By anon148586 — On Feb 02, 2011

your write up is informative.

By anon148584 — On Feb 02, 2011

Am a research student and also very enterprising. is there any way to improve on the PV solar panel to make it profitable enough for commercial investment in Nigeria. if there is any country at all that needs it, it is Nigeria. Population, 150 Million. Total power generating capacity is just 3000MW. Together we can partner to solve this problem an create a big industry in West Africa.

By anon140689 — On Jan 08, 2011

@anon112718: If you have hydrogen binding to silicon only once, then yes it would have a 3+ charge, however there is going to be more then one hydrogen available in the mixture so then there would be 4 hydrogens bonding to the silicon to make an octet, or 0 charge.

Also, from my studies it is very difficult to make any two substances combine that have more than -1 charge per atom. A molecule also has overall charge of 0, 1, or 2 +or- which is many atoms combined.

The more negative or positive charge, the more unstable the molecule becomes. This is why certain substances are mix for the panels because anything else would be unstable or just not even react at all. Hope this clears it up a little.

By Draizer Jerome Bernardo — On Dec 01, 2010

Good information about solar power. I really like it.

By anon127682 — On Nov 17, 2010

@anon101366: Yes, you can generate electricity from panels yourself that you can build at home. It takes a bit of work, but it can pay off in a few ways. You can even get tax credits for building home solar systems.

By anon123923 — On Nov 03, 2010

what are some advantages and disadvantages of using solar energy?

By anon118679 — On Oct 14, 2010

@anon18226: it's a little late but solar cells make a DC power, so you just use a inverter to change the charge to AC, which is what comes out of your wall socket.

hopefully, this helps a little.

By anon112718 — On Sep 21, 2010

Hydrogen has 1 electron and Nitrogen has 7, do you think these elements can be combined with pure silicon to create plates that would produce 3x more electricity?

e.g.: Hydrogen 1 + Silicon 4 = 5 Electron 3 positive

Nitrogen 7 + silicon 4 = 11 Electrons 3 Negative

Based on your explanation of how solar plates work, the theory seems to make sense in my head.

By anon111439 — On Sep 16, 2010

What they call "panel" is not "panel" but "module". Term "panel" stands for a group of modules connected mechanically and electrically.

By anon105856 — On Aug 23, 2010

Hey, I don't understand why solar panels lose efficiency as their temperature rises? Can anyone explain this phenomenon? Aren't semiconductors supposed to have better conductivity at higher temperatures? Thanks in advance -- Anthony

By anon101366 — On Aug 03, 2010

Can I make a solar panel to generate electricity by myself?

By anon96278 — On Jul 15, 2010

really a nice article. It did help me a lot. i just came downstairs after getting a pair of 100W sharp solar panels, and wanted to know the in depth concepts. bullseye was this article. now i'm pretty much able to show off to the company colleagues. Thanks for letting me do that.

By anon92450 — On Jun 28, 2010

question: if you are hooked in to public utilities don't they by law have to purchase any power you don't use? That's why your power meters run both ways, right? this being the case, why would there be any need for storing the power? It would simply be the power company's problem of storage, correct?

By anon89700 — On Jun 11, 2010

This is the most interesting piece of science I've read! Wow, and yeah, thanks.

By anon88190 — On Jun 03, 2010

Very helpful!

By anon87934 — On Jun 02, 2010

This is totally confusing to the middle school reader.

By anon87495 — On May 30, 2010

This is helpful.

By wikesupply — On May 26, 2010

I work for a solar panel supplier in China. The solar panel prices in China are the lowest among the world.

There are two type of solar panels, mono and poly.

The conversion efficiency is different. generally, the mono one is a little better than the poly. You can tell mono/poly by the color. In practice, the conversion efficiency is very little different.

Clients don't easily see the quality difference. You can't see the conversion efficiency with the eyes, so it is rather important to find a reliable supplier.

By anon86168 — On May 24, 2010

I like the idea of solar power. It's just so darned expensive for what you get. I will be out of my house long before panels pay for themselves. I prefer to be uberconservative with my energy usage.

By anon85064 — On May 18, 2010

thanks for the info. it was a little iffy at some points to understand but thanks for the info. it helped me with my report.

By anon84025 — On May 13, 2010

How many units of electricity are made per day? Good article.

By anon83584 — On May 11, 2010

This is awesome! helped a lot. Thanks.

By anon81561 — On May 02, 2010

wow, this site is the bomb. it helped me learn a lot. i hope another person learned a lot, too.

By anon78735 — On Apr 19, 2010

for the guy who said solar power cannot be used for a water heater you are poorly mistaken! i actually built a solar heater for my pool!

it is simply a thin black hose woven back and forth along the roof of my shed that converts the sunlight directly into heat. all that you need then is a small pump to pump water through the hose. it is not super efficient but saves hella money!

By anon77659 — On Apr 15, 2010

i think solar panels are good things to save the world. why we are using power plants to generate current? we can use solar panels to reduce the infrastructure cost of country.

By anon76529 — On Apr 10, 2010

can you use the other elements of the sun in a similar way that solar is created to create even more amounts of energy. my friend and i have an idea that might work very very well

p.s. Can actinide elements be used to create energy?

By anon76498 — On Apr 10, 2010

i don't understand how they work though.

By anon76017 — On Apr 08, 2010

Certainly, solar panels are the future of the world. By generating electricity through renewable sources of energy like solar energy, we are definitely going to benefit a lot.

In India also, a lot of initiatives have been taken. One such website which brings together the manufacturers and the customers on the same platform is Solar Panels India.

By anon75012 — On Apr 05, 2010

Great info.

By anon72910 — On Mar 24, 2010

what percentage of energy do solar panels convert into electricity?

By anon67291 — On Feb 24, 2010

solar power is awesome.

By anon65661 — On Feb 15, 2010

Yeah, the technology isn't refined yet for solar water heaters. That would be cool though. :)

By anon65506 — On Feb 14, 2010

when a solar panel says it make 4kws is that an hour or a day? Thank you very much.

By anon64731 — On Feb 09, 2010

Why did the people invent solar panels?

By anon64687 — On Feb 08, 2010

This is a question not a comment. I'm planning using a solar panel, to run a 3oow bulb. I'm wondering if i can then use the light produced from the bulb to power the panel once the sun has gone. is this possible or does a solar panel require a particular energy only the sun can provide, or will artificial light be adequate?

By anon63014 — On Jan 29, 2010

So are you telling me I should not take my hard earned money in this economy and get solar panels for my home because it won't be cost effective? wow. i'm a hard working mom and this was depressing. I thought I would help me my kids and the planet all in one big way. Oh well back to reality.

By anon56070 — On Dec 11, 2009

Nice. My friend and I are doing a project. By the way, do you know anything about how efficient is a solar panel?

By anon55721 — On Dec 09, 2009

thanks for the help guys.

By anon54793 — On Dec 02, 2009

this helped me with my project. thanks

By anon52661 — On Nov 16, 2009

electrons passing through something *is* electricity,

By anon49270 — On Oct 19, 2009

i just read the article, but i am still confused about how the wires can take the electrons passing through and convert it into electricity.

By nazen — On Oct 05, 2009

I am doing a science fair project called "At what direction does a solar panel receive the most sunlight in _________?" I think I should place a solar panel facing east, west, north,and south. Then I am lost. I am sure I know how a solar panel works, but I do not know how I would do the experiment. It would be great if you could help me. Thanks.

By anon41684 — On Aug 16, 2009

I purchased a solar power system to run 3 lamps and a fan. The battery is now dead and I don't want to buy one more. What can I do with this solar panel. How do i know the power capacity the panel is generating? what can i do with the power? Can I attach the power to a stand alone plug point which can be used say to run a table fan? My system is Tata BP Solar, India. It is a 12V system.

By chatlit — On Apr 16, 2009

Batteries are the real cost element. They represent the true running cost to generate Solar Based Power unless the Solar Power is Grid linked.

By anon30276 — On Apr 16, 2009

There seems to be a wrong impression that once the panels are installed the electricity is free! The real cost of electricity from Photovoltaic panels is in the cost of batteries. Batteries deliver a certain amount of energy (units of electricity)over it's life. The life is limited and depends upon the no. of charge discharge/charge cycle it undergoes and how much the battery is discharged *before* it is set up for the next recharge.

For example a 12V7AmpHour battery will deliver *at most* 8.4 Units of Electricity per 100 Charge/Recharge cycles. The best quality battery under best op. conditions will last~ 800 ChargeDischarge Cycles thus delivering only about 70 units over it's life. In India this battery costs around Rs.1200/-The per unit cost of generation is Rs 16/- as against Rs.4/-. This point needs to be highlighted. Unless the batteries are made efficient only grid linked Systems without intervening batteries seem to be the only answer. Smaller Stand Alone systems are plain uneconomical.

By anon29716 — On Apr 07, 2009

Well, right. It's the human greed that keeps the prices high!

By frostie2007 — On Mar 10, 2009

why does the output of a solar panel drop when exposed to heat in an enclosed area?

By theboom1 — On Feb 18, 2009

I wonder could silicon or this technology be bonded with something to make it strong enough to withstand nuclear waste radiation; could you use this technology to harness the power of nuclear waste?

By anon22046 — On Nov 26, 2008

for those of you who believe that it is not cost effective you are right. If you are willing to put 23,000 up front, have 2500 SQ feet of roof space sun 6 hours a day every day. It will take 40 something years it to pay itself off. Considering that the panels are 80% of the cost and the average panel will only last for 25 years at the most this is not a good deal. I am not saying that you should not get it though. It just won't save money.

By anon20398 — On Oct 30, 2008

is this the same process that a solar calculator uses?

By timfox13 — On Oct 04, 2008

okay, so let me see if i have all the components right I have to get Silicon which can be easily found in beef jerky in the anti moisture or what you will packets but is easier and more purer in other special stores. Next Phosphorus which can be found in ocean deposits and I am conveniently

located in Nevada which was once an ocean so i can get dirt maybe by a natural open maybe lake or something. Then get Boron which can also be found in stores and then this is the part im not sure about do i melt these together into 2 slabs and wrap copper wiring around the middle of the two of them before putting them on and wrap the remaining copper wiring onto a battery or any other kind of electrical kind of ... source well not a source but something like that i don't know im confused can someone please explain or summarize this paragraph into steps I have resources that i can get the materials i just need to review the steps thank you.

By anon18226 — On Sep 17, 2008

How does solar power get converted to electricity??? From: a student from rockwall tx

By anon17044 — On Aug 20, 2008

Where can i get the schematic wiring for solar installation?

By steve82 — On Mar 31, 2008

lightening can damage panels for sure. They should be properly grounded to earth.

By anon9469 — On Mar 06, 2008

Does lightning do any damage to the solar panel?

By anon7857 — On Feb 04, 2008

Hot water solar systems work without photo voltaic panels. they simply heat up the water using the greenhouse effect. This hot water (or oil) can be passed through a heat exchanger to drive turbines to generate electricity without the need for any chemistry.

By anon7473 — On Jan 27, 2008

this article gave sooo much info. that i'm surprised my head didn't explode.

anyway, how does a solar panel survive 25 years without burning up because of the sun?????? I wouldn't survive 2 days in that heat!

posted by,

the a man

By anon7221 — On Jan 21, 2008

lifespan is somewhere in the range of 25 years

By kdev669 — On Jan 03, 2008

ahh, this article was super helpful.

how long, roughly, is the life of a solar panel, given damage from UV rays and the elements?

By anon6408 — On Dec 28, 2007

Help with a design for dcr 225 refrigerator sun-danzer:

12v dc battery powered in a stand alone environment.

Environment: 6hr-sun/day. 90Degrees farenh. 24Hrs 7days.

Could you help with the most suitable cost effective components pv panels, cables, charger or controller charger, mount kits and the type of battery required for this project.

Thank you for your effort.



By anon3515 — On Sep 03, 2007

Solar panels are absolutely able to generate electricity for residential needs. It is the price tag for the initial investment that is daunting. A solar panel system that feeds electricity back into the power grid (what you currently receive your electricity from) and produces enough electricity for an entire house will generally cost about $20,000 up front. But, after you subtract rebates and tax credits from various incentive programs, you can get a lot of that money back.

Furthermore, if it provides you with thousands of dollars worth of electricity per year, it's worth the investment over the long term and can actually be a money-maker. A smaller solar panel that is just going to heat your water does not even have to be hooked up to the power grid--it can just be hooked up directly to your hot water tank--and that should be measurably cheaper.

By anon2558 — On Jul 16, 2007

I wouldnt think it would be able to, though im sure it would make a dent in the bills. ;-)

By anon2057 — On Jun 26, 2007

from reading this I get the impression that this technology is not yet refined enough for me to install a solar system to provide my h water -am I correct?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Solar Panel Guide, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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