How does solar power work?

Published: 21 May 2018

So how does solar power really work? What is the science behind it? We’ve made solar technology easy to understand.

In this article, we’ll walk you through how solar power works and just how energy is generated. Let’s get started by looking at solar power systems, or PV systems. While they may seem complicated at first sight, in truth, they are quite simple. 

They are based on a whole set of electronic devices that interact with each other to transform sunlight into electricity that is then used to feed your electrical appliances. 

In this article we’ll explain the most important components of a PV system and briefly describe how they work together.

We’ll start with the solar panel, the heart of the PV system.

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How solar panels work

The basic idea behind a solar panel is to transform sunlight into electricity. 

This can be done using the photoelectric effect theory of Albert Einstein. This theory describes how small particles inside the sunlight, known as photons, can release electrons and create a flow of electricity. 

Based on this concept, solar panel manufacturers selected silicon as the main mineral for the manufacturing process of solar panels. They chose silicon because it is widely available on Earth and can be easily mixed with other minerals like boron and phosphorus to accelerate the flow of electricity. 

Basically, just as the human heart pumps blood around the bloodstream of the human body and into the brain, the solar panels generate electricity and ‘pump,’ – or send –  it to the brain of the PV system, the inverter.  

How the inverter works

This device is perhaps the most complex and important part of a PV system. It is actually the brain of the whole solar system.

The basic function of the device is to transform the DC signal coming from the solar panels into the AC electricity our electrical appliances use to work. 

This is the main function that all inverters must perform.

The inverter must be able to couple with the existing grid frequency and voltage in order to effectively transform the DC signal into an AC signal that works in accordance with the quality standards of the power grid.

Moreover, other advanced inverters like the battery-based or the hybrid inverters, are used to balance all the power production and demand that can be found in the installation and additionally, be coupled with solar energy storage devices. 

These inverters must also be able to measure the instantaneous amount of electricity demanded by the household and balance it with the solar power production.

If the solar power production is lower than the demand, the inverter must use electricity coming from the batteries or the grid to balance the system. 

On the other hand, if the solar power production is higher than the demand, the excess will be exported to the grid or used to charge the batteries.

How solar batteries work

Batteries are like the fuel of the PV system. 

They are able to supply the electricity needed if the solar panels are not able to comply with all the demands of the household in a specific instant.  

Moreover, since solar panels cannot produce electricity at night, solar batteries can be used to supply the electricity of the house in the evening.

Batteries are optional in a PV system and they offer advantages like reliability and independence. 

However, they increase the costs radically, therefore the need to install them must be measured carefully.

How a charge controller works

A charge controller is a device that is sometimes used in a specific type of PV system, the DC coupled PV system. 

Basically, this device ensures that the charge and discharge of energy from the batteries is performed safely to ensure the lifetime operation of the battery. 

There are two types of charge controllers: PWM and MPPT. These two vary in the optimisation of power tracking from solar panels and their DC power outputs are directed to the batteries and the inverter.

How the combiner box works

The combiner box is merely a panelboard that acts as a concentrator of the electricity generated from all strings of solar panels, that is directed through wiring to the inverter. 

They generally contain fuses, breakers and switches to ensure the correct protection and safe operation of the PV system.


So how does solar power work? Well, solar power works differently according to the type of system. 

The PV system with energy storage works like this:

  1. Solar panels generate DC electricity, which goes to the combiner box through PV wires. 
  2. After that, power tracking and battery charging is done through charge controllers or hybrid inverters. 
  3. Later, the optimised DC signal goes to the inverter which transforms the DC signal into AC signal 
  4. Then it goes to the main panelboard that contains all the loads of the installation. 
  5. Finally the energy meter is located at the end, to interact with the utility.

This is how a simple grid-tied PV system works:

  1. Solar panels generate DC electricity, which goes to the combiner box through PV wires. 
  2. Then the grid-tied inverter performs the maximum power point (MPP) tracking and transforms the DC signal into an AC signal 
  3. Signal reaches the main panelboard. 
  4. The energy meter is placed right after to interact with the utility.

Next Steps…

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