Advancements in solar technology mean that going solar at home has never been more affordable or easy. How does solar power work, though, and what does a solar installation look like? Here’s the Solar 101.
Table of Contents
What you’ll learn in solar 101
How solar power works
Solar panels and shingles are made up of solar cells. These are typically made using silicon, an abundant element in sand. When silicon is ‘doped’ with phosphorous, it creates free electrons. This is because silicon atoms have four bonds and phosphorous atoms have five. Put these elements next to each other in a lattice and there’s an unused bond, resulting in a free electron. Layer your cells in a certain way, such as with a gap or junction between pure silicon and doped silicon, and you can create an electrical field.
An electrical field isn’t electricity though. For that, we need a source of energy. In this case, the sun.
When the sun beams down on solar cells, it transfers energy (as photons) to create an electron-ion bond in the electrical field. When that happens, the electron wants to move one way and the ion wants to move the other. This creates movement of charge, which is – if you remember your high school science – electricity!
To collect that electricity, we need wires. In solar panels, wires run across the surface of the cells to collect the electricity. In a simple system this direct current can be used to power a lightbulb or even some appliances. For home solar purposes though, this direct current (DC) goes to an inverter which converts it into alternating current (AC). This electricity then goes to the main electrical service panel and into the circuits in your home.
Now you understand how solar electricity is generated, let’s look at how can you benefit from it at home.
Types of solar installations
Home solar installations can be categorized in the following three ways:
- Grid-connected solar electrical systems
- Grid-connected solar electrical systems with battery backup
- Off-grid solar electrical systems with battery backup (and, typically, a generator).
There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these setups. The right choice for you will depend on where you live, how much electricity you use and how much it costs, the frequency of power disruptions from the main grid, and many other factors.
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In cases where the solar power system is connected to the main electrical grid, you can send excess electricity to the grid and draw from the grid when you need to, such as at night. If you have a charge controller connected to a battery, you can store some energy for later use, reducing your reliance on the electrical grid.
Don’t want to install a rooftop array? Solar panels aren’t the only way to go solar.
Other ways to go solar at home
If you like the idea of solar power but hate the look of rooftop panels, you’re in luck. Solar roofs and solar shingles are increasingly popular and offer a less conspicuous way to harness the sun’s energy for use at home. Find out more about:
And don’t forget to ask yourself: Should I install a solar roof?
If you’re not quite ready, or not able to install solar panels at home, you might want to consider community solar. This is a great choice if you’re renting, can’t finance the cost of a solar array, have a rooftop that is shaded for most of the day, or tend to move a lot.
Community solar offers shares or subscriptions in solar arrays near to you, so you can enjoy cleaner, greener electricity even without solar panels on your roof.
Find out more about how community solar works and whether it’s right for you.
Is home solar worth it?
It can feel daunting to install a home solar electrical system. Thankfully, plucky green energy enthusiasts no longer need to clamber up onto the roof of their home to try to install heavy solar panels by themselves. Instead, solar installation companies make the process easier.
There are now thousands of trained and certified solar installers ready nationwide to set up your solar panels in just a day or two. Even a full solar roof can be installed in a week or two.
And once the solar panels or shingles are in place, they usually start generating electricity right away, helping you to cut the cost of your monthly electricity bill.
What about the cost of going solar? If home solar still feels like a luxury, you might be surprised at how much the cost of solar has decreased in recent years, even while solar panels have become more efficient. And with federal, state, and municipal rebates available in many places, there’s never been a better time to install solar.
Home solar can pay for itself in an average of just 8 years. Here’s how to calculate your home solar payback period. In some places, you may even be able to make money with solar, thanks to net metering. For most homeowners, though, the main benefits of going solar are saving money and saving the planet.
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