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What Is a Solar Array?

A solar array is a collection of multiple solar panels linked together to harness the sun's energy, converting it into electricity. This clean, renewable power source is pivotal in our shift towards sustainable living. Arrays can be tailored to various scales, from residential rooftops to vast solar farms. Intrigued by how solar arrays can power your home? Let's uncover their potential together.
Christian Petersen
Christian Petersen

A solar array is a loosely defined term referring to a group of photovoltaic solar panels or cells that convert sunlight to electricity, arranged and linked in such a way as to operate as a single unit. The term can also refer to a similar set of reflecting mirrors used for directing and focusing sunlight onto such a group of photovoltaic units. A solar array can be relatively small, such as a group of panels on the roof of a single family home, or very large, such as an array covering several acres, containing hundreds or even thousands of individual panels.

In the strictest sense of the term, even some individual solar panels are technically solar arrays. A typical solar panel is made up of several photovoltaic cells linked together and bound, or contained, within a single unit. The word array is not generally used in this manner, however, and a solar array is usually regarded as a group of solar panels, which can vary widely in size and shape. A typical solar array is composed of solar panels of one type, but this does not necessarily have to be the case.

An array of solar panels pointed at the sun.
An array of solar panels pointed at the sun.

Photovoltaic cells are the basis for most solar arrays. These devices convert sunlight into electric current, and can generate substantial amounts of electricity in large enough numbers. In the late 20th and early 21st century, it became more common for energy and environmentally conscious homeowners to install residential solar arrays in an effort to mitigate their energy costs. A typical residential array is mounted on the house, facing due south when possible, and usually on the roof.

Solar photovoltaic power supplies often require the installation of switch disconnectors, or isolators.
Solar photovoltaic power supplies often require the installation of switch disconnectors, or isolators.

While most solar arrays are stationary, some arrays are designed to use very efficient electric motors to turn the individual panels or groups of panels to follow the sun. This maximizes both the exposure of the panels to direct sunlight and the electricity they can generate. The small amount of electricity used by the motors is more than offset by the increase in the output. In some areas, where land has little value, such as deserts or other areas that receive a high percentage of sunlight, very large solar arrays can cover many acres.

Many spacecraft use solar arrays for generating electricity as well. They are easily oriented towards the sun and are capable of providing a significant amount of power. Both on earth and in space, groups of mirrors, sometimes called solar arrays, direct sunlight for conversion to electricity by solar cells or other purposes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a solar array?

A solar array is a collection of multiple solar panels linked together to generate electricity from sunlight. These panels are composed of photovoltaic cells that convert solar energy into direct current (DC) electricity. Arrays can vary in size from a few panels for residential use to large-scale installations for commercial or utility purposes.

How much electricity can a typical solar array produce?

The electricity output of a solar array depends on its size and the efficiency of the panels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average residential solar PV system is about 5 kilowatts (kW), which can produce approximately 6,000 to 8,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year, enough to cover the annual electricity usage of a typical U.S. household. (https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/solar/photovoltaics-and-electricity.php)

What factors affect the performance of a solar array?

Performance of a solar array is influenced by several factors including geographic location, orientation and tilt of the panels, the presence of shade, local weather conditions, and the efficiency of the solar cells. Optimal performance is achieved when panels are installed facing south (in the Northern Hemisphere) at an angle that captures the most sunlight throughout the year.

Can solar arrays store energy for use at night?

Solar arrays themselves do not store energy. However, they can be paired with battery storage systems to retain excess energy produced during the day for use at night. The addition of batteries allows for a continuous power supply and can provide energy independence from the grid.

Are solar arrays environmentally friendly?

Solar arrays are considered environmentally friendly as they produce clean, renewable energy without emitting greenhouse gases during operation. Over their lifespan, they can significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with electricity generation. The production and disposal of solar panels do have an environmental impact, but ongoing advancements aim to minimize these effects.

What is the lifespan of a solar array, and is it cost-effective?

Solar arrays typically have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years and can be a cost-effective investment. The initial cost can be offset by the savings on electricity bills, and many regions offer incentives or tax credits to reduce the upfront cost. Over time, the return on investment for solar arrays continues to improve as technology advances and costs decrease. (https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy19osti/72399.pdf)

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    • An array of solar panels pointed at the sun.
      By: Pinosub
      An array of solar panels pointed at the sun.
    • Solar photovoltaic power supplies often require the installation of switch disconnectors, or isolators.
      By: gandolf
      Solar photovoltaic power supplies often require the installation of switch disconnectors, or isolators.