How Do Solar Panels Work?

Most people just aren’t all that curious. They don’t care how electricity gets from the power plant all the way to their light bulb. They only care about results.

But you: you read these blogs, so you must have the kind of curiosity that leads you to ask questions. We’re betting you’re so curious, you’re curious about curiosity! That’s why, before we get to the blog, we’re taking a little detour to think about the value of curiosity.


In this country, we’ve made it harder for people to explore their curiosity. Many, many years ago, kids had the freedom to work things out when they’re playing. They could choose teams, decide positions, call their own fouls, and generally make their own decisions. That freedom also gave kids a chance to try new things and taught them how to problem solve.

Even if they didn’t want to play a sport, they could explore the neighborhood just to discover what was there. Today, it doesn’t really work that way anymore. Today’s kids have structured games, with coaches and umpires telling kids what to do, solving problems and making decisions for them.

While this parental control makes things safer and fairer for the kids, it does hamper curiosity. If we encourage everyone to spend more time exposing themselves to new things, they’re more likely to come up with creative solutions to solving problems.

…Anyway! We love curiosity! We’re excited that you’re curious! Let’s stop ranting and get back to actually satisfying that curiosity, shall we?

How Do Solar Panels Work?

This can get very complicated. We could spend time trying to explain how solar panels work with words and terms like: n-type silicon; p-type; cold holes; and wander across the PN Junction.

While we know you’re curious, we’re going to try to keep is simpler than that. Let’s call it “Solar Power for people who are curious but aren’t going for their Master’s degree.” We’re not going for “solar power for dummies” exactly, but maybe but “solar power but understandable.”

The sandwich

Solar panels are actually made from many smaller units called photovoltaic cells. These cells are linked together to create the panels. Photovoltic cells are built like sandwiches, and each  “slice of bread” made out of a semiconducting material, usually silicon. Silicon doesn’t do a very good job of conducting electricity on its own, so impurities are added to help it. Like toppings on the bread. Ok, maybe that’s not a perfect metaphor. On the top layer, they add a dose of phosphorous which adds more electrons and gives it a negative charge. Meanwhile, the builders add boron to the bottom layer. Boron attracts fewer electrons, giving the bottom of the panel a positive charge.

When the top “piece of bread” is negatively charged and the bottom piece is positively charged, the difference creates an electrical field between the top and bottom of the panel. The “middle of the sandwich” if you will. We’ll call that the “silicon junction.” So… how does this “sandwich” equal electrical power? Well…

Making the power

When a photon of sunlight hits the panel’s cells, those light particles knock an electron free from the atoms. That electron is pushed out of the silicon junction. Conductive metal plates on the sides of the cell collect the loose electrons and transfer them to wires. At that point, the electrons can flow like any other source of electricity.

Any excess power from your solar panels is fed back to your local utility company. Some people actually get paid by supplying the utility company with the energy their solar panels generate. That’s how efficient solar panels can be!

That’s pretty basic, but it does explain how we can use sunlight to generate electricity. A few notes you might want to know:

Solar Panel Fun Facts!

  • Even on cloudy days, your panels will absorb sunlight.
  • Like any technology, research, hard work and curiosity have led to advancements and improvements in solar panels. Recently, researchers have produced solar cells so light and flexible that they could be used in architecture, aerospace technology, or wearable electronics.
  • In addition to photovoltaic solar panels, other technologies like solar thermal and concentrated solar power work differently. They are designed to harness the power of sunlight to create electricity or to heat water or air.

There are two other Early Bird blogs, Is Solar Power Right For You? Parts 1 and 2 that explore how you can use solar panels to create electricity for your home and whether or not it’s a good idea for you. If you’re *curious*, check them out!

Otherwise, while we’re at it, here are a few solar panel quick tips:

Solar Panel Best Practices

  • Not every roof is in the perfect place and at the correct angle to take full advantage of the sun‘s energy.
  • For the panels to work their best, they should point true south.
  • Solar panels should also be angled as close as possible to the area’s latitude. This will help them absorb the maximum amount of energy all year.
  • Your roof should not be in the shade. Where you live – sunny Phoenix or cloudy Seattle – is also a factor to consider.

So there you go. You know why curiosity is a good thing, how solar panels create electricity and even a little about whether solar is right for you.

Congratulations, you’ve satisfied your curiosity just by reading a blog! Stay curious. And remember: if you’re ever curious about anything electrical, Early Bird is always happy to answer your questions. We love curiosity, and we want to support it.