A photovoltaic cell is not a particularly complicated piece of scientific engineering. The simple explanation is that solar radiation reacts with certain types of cells, and when several are wired in series, a substantial amount of energy can be harnessed; this is what we know as solar power. Photovoltaic systems are essentially the product of tying together many cells and modules together for the purpose of generating electricity, and these systems range from simple panels you might find on a solar powered calculator to massive photovoltaic power stations with power outputs as high as 60 megawatts.
The average consumer looking for a solar power solution for their home will likely land somewhere in the middle, and these types of systems are the focus of this article. The elements of a residential photovoltaic system vary based on the needs of the consumer, but typically include some or all of the following components: A photovoltaic array (several configurations are possible here), power inverter, and in many cases batteries and a charge controller.
This is typically what people associate with solar power. These typically dark purple panels are what do the actual conversion of solar radiation into usable power. PV panels can be the traditional, flat panels, or some of the more creative solutions, like solar shingles. The more panels you have in your system, and the more efficient each panel is, the more energy your system will produce.
Without getting too technical, power inverters change the electrical current from DC to AC power. Solar panels produce energy in the form of Direct Current (DC power). DC is the same type of power that your cell phone or laptop uses (this is why you have to have a wall wart, or power supply to invert the AC power in your home to DC to use in your device). In addition to converting the DC power to usable AC power in your home, and inverter also provides an element of protection for your devices, as inverters are typically fused and contain short circuit protection to prevent power surges.
Batteries / Charge Controller
If you're off the grid, batteries and a charge controller will be extremely important in your system. Without these two components, once the sun goes down, you'll have no power at all. Additionally, since you'll likely not be using 100% of the generated power during the day, having batteries tied into your system will allow you to store the energy for use later. A charge controller basically keeps your batteries conditioned and manages the amount of power flowing in and out of them to optimize efficiency and keep your batteries and system in general lasting as long as possible.
This has been just a quick overview of the most common components used in a solar power system. All systems are a bit different, so when you're talking to your installer or vendor, make sure that you identify which components will be most important for your system, and do your research so that you don't end up buying a bunch of material that you don't really need.
Image courtesy of mrsolar.com
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