What Does a Solar Panel Do Exactly? How Solar Panels Work (and Main Uses)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Solar Panels | April 1, 2024

Man looking at a solar panel out of his home window asks, what does a solar panel do, how do solar panels work, what is a solar panel used for and just what are solar panels?

Solar panels can be a great way to help disconnect your home from the grid and utilize renewable energy, but many people wonder, what does a solar panel do exactly?8

Obviously, solar panels are used to generate electricity from the sun, but what you might not know is how photovoltaic cells (PV) work, using the light spectrum.

The mechanism of electrical generation starts when energy particles from the sun hit silicon material, an exterior part of the solar panel with light absorption capabilities.

Knowing the answer to the question, what does a solar panel do, can help you make the decision to implement full or partial solar energy for your home.

This complete guide outlines the functions a solar panel performs, and how those functions allow it to generate electricity that can be used or stored for future use.

What Does a Solar Panel Do?

Solar panels create an electrical current using the rays of the sun. Light is directly converted into electricity thanks to the properties of atoms.

The light spectrum includes a number of non-visible energy waves, when that energy directly hits the cells of a solar panel, it disrupts the electrons in the PV cell.

Basically, the absorbed light energy knocks electrons out of the solar panel.

Electrons flow through the circuitry freely, generating a Direct Current (DC). But this isn’t the end of the story because direct current isn’t usable by most electronics.

When well configured, a collection of solar panels can generate enough power to the level of power plants.2

How Do Solar Panels Work? (How Solar Panels Work)

As simple and plain as they appear, solar panels are an ingenious invention. But how do solar panels work?

When the light spectrum is absorbed by the photovoltaic cells’ silicon, semiconductor element, the direct electrical current is created. Any slight exposure to light allows silicon to generate DC.3

Whenever light lands on silicon cells, a discharge of electrons creates an electric field, and as they freely move inside a cell, electricity is the result.

But, most household appliances and items that utilize electricity require an alternating current (AC).

Although the generated electricity is available for immediate use in an inverter or to recharge batteries, an inverter must be used to change the DC into AC.

An inverter makes converting DC into Alternating Current (AC) effortless

An image of solar panels tilted angle to the sun's position

(Image: haraldbecker215)

For optimum power generation, solar panels should be installed in areas that receive more sunlight at a tilted angle to the sun’s position.

Anyone seeking to understand how solar panels work should appreciate solar technology’s journey since its adoption to become the best alternative to fossil energy in the wake of climate change as the world embraces clean energy sources.

A vital thing to recall concerning how solar panels work is that they harness energy from the sun through the photovoltaic (PV) effect. Essentially, solar panels consist of photovoltaic cells made from layers of silicon.

This semiconductor element enables the free movement of electrons between its atoms whenever it comes into conduct with light.1

What Are Solar Panels and What Is a Solar Panel Used For?

Many people grapple with questions such as: What are solar panels? And what is a solar panel used for?

Put simply; solar panels are are series of pv or thermal cells that convert light (or heat, in the case of thermal) energy into electricity.

Direct electric current goes through a circuit of wires to an inverter for conversion into AC. After conversion, solar energy becomes available for domestic and industrial use or is sent to the grid.

Among the many applications, AC electricity can be used to power any electrical device, from your laptop to your electric vehicle.

On the other hand, solar thermal collectors utilize heat energy to heat water for domestic use.1 Solar energy has myriad applications, from household energy needs to light up streets and powering communication systems.

Besides being environmentally friendly and sustainable, solar energy reverses carbon footprints and reduces utility costs.

How Do Photovoltaic Cells Work: What Does a Solar Panel Do?

Photovoltaic cells convert light energy into electrical energy.

Once photons (light energy) hit the outer surface of semiconductor cells made from silicon, electrification of electrons causes them to break free, creating electricity.

A resultant electric field then guides a movement of electrons toward a terminal with the photovoltaic cell.

The resultant electric current is often available for immediate use; however, a battery is used for storage for extended use.

An image of solar panels installed on a house roof with white windows.

(Image: congerdesign16)

Nevertheless, creating solar energy using photovoltaic cells enables individuals,13 businesses, and county establishments to generate renewable energy, saving on utility bills.

Despite evident drawbacks regarding how much energy photovoltaic cells can generate, technological advances are promising, and sooner than later, solar panel technology will replace fossil energy sources.4

Solar Energy Calculations

Accurate solar energy calculations are critical in establishing solar panel output and efficacy.

Such computations consider various variables, including installation location and tilt angle, panel size and weather pattern, to determine how much power a single panel can generate.

Determining the proficiency rating of a solar panel requires calculating the energy absorbed by an individual panel throughout the day.

Although significant variables in solar energy calculations directly affect the functionality of solar panels, they include light intensity, temperature and shading.

In comparison, mathematical equations and algorithms designed for solar photovoltaic arrangements are needed for accurate computations.

Without a valid way to determine the efficacy of solar panels, there may be a tendency to overestimate or even underestimate the system’s output.5

How Is Solar Energy Produced?

The photovoltaic effect of the solar panel is responsible for solar energy production.

As light from the sun gets absorbed by silicon layers, a semiconductor element in the panel, it activates electrons that freely move to create electric energy in direct current.

However, it takes an inverter to change the generated direct current into electricity, usually as an alternating current (AC).

Although direct current is often available for immediate use, converting it into electricity enhances its applications, and this is perhaps a reason businesses and homeowners are going for solar.12

This is why batteries play an integral role in storing solar energy for future use or sending it to the grid for spatial application by others.

Nevertheless, the amount of solar power generated is pegged on myriad variables, including weather patterns, proficiency, time of day and panel positioning.

With technological advances and increased demand for clean and eco-friendly energy sources, solar power is increasingly becoming the better option.6

Do Solar Panel Need Direct Sunlight?

While it is now obvious that solar panels generate electricity using sunlight, the view that solar panels require direct sunlight to work proficiently is misplaced.

From a technical point of view, solar panels can harness electricity with partial sunlight. However, sustained lack of sun can cause the panels to lose efficiency.

An image of solar panel placed on a grass surface with direct sunlight.

(Image: cxjiang17)

This does not refute that direct sunlight efficiently generates solar energy; however, a solar panel can still harness electricity from indirect sunlight.

With advances in solar panel technology, some manufacturers produce high-proficiency panels designed for cloudy areas or places that do not receive direct sunlight.

At that point, direct sunlight is essential for maximum output; nevertheless, direct sunlight is not a requirement or deterrent for generating electricity with the help of solar panels.

What Does an Inverter Do in a Solar Panel System?

Optimizing solar energy generated from solar panels would be almost impossible without an inverter. So, what does an inverter do in a solar panel system that makes it an integral component in the renewable energy generation process?

An inverter plays a vital role in converting the Direct Current (DC) absorbed by silicon cells into Alternating Current (AC), which is then used to light up homes, streets, and power industries.

Apart from converting DC into AC, an inverter stabilizes voltage fluctuations, frequency, and phase that arise during the conversion cycle.

Two types of inverters commonly used include string inverters and microinverters.

While string inverters are utilized in large solar panels for requiring few components, microinverters work best with smaller domestic solar systems.

However, modern inverters comprise integrated applications that offer real-mode data analysis and diagnostic features that allow consumers to track their energy usage and assess how the system helps save long-term energy.1

Ultimately, not only does an inverter boost the generation of solar energy, but it also ensures that it meets the pragmatic requirements of everyday living.

What Is the Size of Standard Solar Panel? (Solar Panel Dimensions)

Solar energy is a green energy source, but it is crucial to know the size of standard solar panel. There are various sizing options: 60-cell, 72-cell, and 96-cell.

Nonetheless, the size of standard solar panels is influenced by the type of application, such as residential or commercial.

Size 60 and 70 are commonly used in residential and commercial. A 96-cell is equivalent to a 17.5 square fit that can be hard to fit on your roof.

Understanding the size of standard solar polar can help determine the solar panel dimensions.

Solar design Width Height Depth
60-cell 39″ 66″ 1.3″ – 1.6″
72-cell 39″ 77″ 1.3″ – 1.6″
96-cell 41.5″ 62.6″ 1.38″

Do Solar Panels Work in a Power Outage?

Solar panels are made of photovoltaic cells, which transform sunlight into energy.4

You might wonder, do solar panels work in a power outage?

Solar panels will not function during a power outage but can work with solar battery storage. Solar battery storage can be an ideal backup for a power outage.5

An image of a technician wearing safety gear on a boom lift fixing electrical wirings.

(Image: Антон Дмитриев18)

Power outages occur when the electric grid is shut down due to a high consumer overload or extreme weather.

Therefore, pairing your solar panel with solar battery storage allows the panel to divert excess energy to the battery, used whenever there is a blackout. So, this responds swiftly to the question: What does a solar panel do exactly?

Is Charging Tesla With Solar Panels Efficient?

If you are driving a Tesla, you might have observed increased electricity costs. Even though you are saving money you previously used on gas, looking for ways to reduce electricity costs is essential.

Solar energy effectively reduces electricity costs and is a good investment if you consider buying a Tesla. So, is charging Tesla with solar panels viable?

Yes, you can charge a Tesla with solar. As an electric vehicle (EV), powering it with solar energy is an effective way to save on electricity and a step towards powering your home with solar power.

However, it would be best if you had an installer determine the size of your home to support the extra demand for charging Tesla. Moreover, suppose you’re considering installing solar in your home and not driving a Tesla but planning to in the future.

In that case, you should inform the installer to establish a solar panel adequate for residential use and charging Tesla. Additionally, if you’re already using solar power and concerned about the increasing demand created by a new Tesla, talk to an installer to expand your current solar system.

Hence, to charge Tesla using solar, you must expand or install a solar system in your home. Again, it would be best to buy an EV charger, especially the standard 120 V outlet that is compatible with your electric vehicle.11

However, you should install a charging system or a dedicated 240 V outlet to charge your EV more swiftly. Charging a Tesla takes about 8 to 10 solar panels.

Close up image of a man charging an electric vehicle.

(Image: Maxim Hopman19)

While this is a rough estimation, the number of panels is influenced by the following:

  • Tesla model
  • Your home location
  • The efficiency of the solar panel

The EPA utilizes kilo-watt-hours (KWh) to compare EVs with conventional cars to travel 100 miles against the miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe). Therefore, the kWh required to charge a Tesla is determined by distance. For example, a journey of 30 miles requires approximately 17kWh.

Efficiency Rating

Below are the efficiency rating of each Tesla model and its miles per gallon equivalent:

Tesla Model Mileage
Tesla Model X 102 MPGe
Tesla Model S 120 MPGe
Tesla Model Y Long-Range AWD 122 MPGe
Tesla Model 3 Long-Range AWD 131 MPGe

What Are the Types of Solar Panels? (What Does a Solar Panel Do Exactly?)

The available types of solar panels have different semiconducting materials and carbon footprints. Many solar panels are made from crystalline silicon.6

Therefore, it is necessary to consider the overall carbon footprint and material to make each solar panel.

The types of solar panels include:

  • Thin-film solar panels: This type of solar panel is made from a lightweight and flexible material. Nonetheless, the type of solar is called thin-fin because they have light-absorbing layers roughly 350 times smaller than silicon cells.
  • Organic solar panels: These solar panels utilize carbon-based semiconducting material.7 These organic photovoltaics (OPV) or polymer or plastic solar panels are built by dissolving organic compounds printed on thin plastics.
  • Perovskite solar panels: This thin-film solar panel is made from perovskite, a synthetic material with a crystallographic structure. The crystallographic structure is incredibly efficient, transforming photons from the sun into electricity.7
  • Monocrystalline solar panels: These panels are highly efficient and contain a single silicon crystal. Nevertheless, these types of solar panels are expensive.
  • Polycrystalline solar panels: These solar panels are built out of several silicon crystals. While polycrystalline solar panels are less efficient, they are affordable.

What Is Solar Panel for AC Unit?

About three-quarters of homes across the US use air conditioners (AC).10 Moreover, these AC units use about 6% of all electricity generated in the country at the cost of $29 billion yearly.

Additionally, about 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere yearly.

This suggests that solar panel for AC unit can minimize environmental pressure and save money. Installing solar-powered AC or windows can be ideal for reducing climate change.

Besides environmental protection, solar panels for AC units can enhance the value of your property. Home buyers are also likely to purchase properties with solar-power AC.

An image of a white split type air-condition unit.

(Image: Sprinter_Lucio20)

Furthermore, solar panel AC units will save on AC costs. While you might use electricity from the power grid, the solar-powered AC will reduce your consumption by roughly 50%, depending on your home location.

Therefore, with solar panel AC, you will save a significant amount on AC expenses, which assists in offsetting the initial installation cost of panels.

Traditional AC units working on sunny days can overload the electricity grid resulting in a power outage. Solar panel AC systems are efficient because they reduce the demand and shift the load from the main power grid, considerably minimizing the frequency of brown and blackouts.

Solar energy is clean and renewable; solar-powered AC units reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Ultimately, this reduces greenhouse emission that leads to climate change.

Therefore, when installing or shifting to a solar panel AC unit, you should consider the following;

  • Climatic conditions
  • The size of your home
  • Battery

In addition, you should recognize that there are different solar AC systems, including DC-powered solar, AC-powered, and hybrid-powered solar air conditioners.

Even though there are different solar-powered air conditioners, solar-powered AC is common. However, the inverter influences the efficient operations of these air conditioners by transforming DC from the panels to AC.

What Is the Solar Farm Income per Acre?

Solar farms or plants are ground-mounted solar installations that use solar panels or concentrating solar systems to harvest solar energy. In addition, the solar farm income per acre is influenced by the size of the land, amount of sunlight, distance to the grid, and soil quality.

Therefore, you should use the solar farm income per acre calculator for accurate information. Accounting for all factors, an acre of a solar farm can generate $1 770-$3,540 per month, equivalent to $21,250 to $42,500 yearly.

What Will a 100 Watt Solar Panel Run?

Solar energy is an efficient way to protect the environment and save electricity costs.14 Solar energy also powers machines, phones, or streetlights.5

But what will a 100-watt solar panel run? A 100-watt is a suitable way to store solar energy. In addition to convenience, a 100-watt solar panel can run various small devices such as fans, lamps, cell phones, laptops, or Wi-Fi routers.

How Much Power Does a Solar Panel Produce?

A solar panel is a technology that converts energy from the sun into electricity. Therefore, the question of what a solar panel does can be challenging.

A solar panel converts sunlight into electricity. In that case, how much power does a solar panel produce?

How much power a solar panel produces depends on factors such as sunlight, location, solar cell technology, lifecycle, clean panel, and materials.

Solar panels are made from photovoltaic cells sandwiched with layers of semiconducting material, especially silicon. Every layer has an electric property energized when they absorb photons from the sunlight, producing an electric current through the photovoltaic effect.6

So, the PVWatts tool determines how much power a solar panel produces. The tool estimates energy produced by the solar panel based on the amount of sunlight, location, solar cell technology, lifecycle, clean panel, and materials.

This allows installers, homeowners, and manufacturers to evaluate the performance of PV installation and cost.6 Even though this tool is a good starting point, homeowners should hire a solar installer to make accurate estimates of how much power solar panels will produce.

What Is Carbon Footprint Solar Panels?

Solar panels produce clean energy; however, what is the carbon footprint solar panels? Unlike non-renewable sources, solar panels minimize carbon emissions when making energy.9

Nonetheless, the production process resulting in solar energy causes emissions. Hence, in estimating the carbon footprint for solar panels, it is necessary to consider; the materials used to make panels, the manufacturing process, and the lifespan.

As people continue to search for what a solar panel does, they should also determine the carbon footprint of solar panels.

Understanding the answer to the question, what does a solar panel do, can help you decide if this type of easy, green energy is for you.


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2Dhar, M. and Harvey, A. (2022, February 11). How do solar panels work? What makes these alternative energy sources function? livescience.com. Retrieved 21 March 2023 from <https://www.livescience.com/41995-how-do-solar-panels-work.html>

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8Department of Energy. (2023). Solar. Energy.gov. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/solar>

9Eisenson, M. (2022, October 26). Solar Panels Reduce CO2 Emissions More Per Acre Than Trees — and Much More Than Corn Ethanol. State of the Planet. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from <https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/10/26/solar-panels-reduce-co2-emissions-more-per-acre-than-trees-and-much-more-than-corn-ethanol/>

10Energy Saver. (2023). Air Conditioning. Energy Saver. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/air-conditioning#>

11Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, February 22). Explaining Electric & Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from <https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/explaining-electric-plug-hybrid-electric-vehicles>

12Solar Energy Technologies Office. (2023). Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/homeowners-guide-going-solar>

13University of Michigan. (2023). Photovoltaic Energy Factsheet. Center for Sustainable Systems. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from <https://css.umich.edu/publications/factsheets/energy/photovoltaic-energy-factsheet>

14Wikipedia. (2023, February 26). Solar energy. Wikipedia. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_energy>

15Photo by haraldbecker2. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/solar-photovoltaic-electricity-2666106/>

16Photo by congerdesign. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/photovoltaic-house-roof-energy-533688/>

17Photo by cxjiang. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/cleaning-robot-sky-photovoltaic-3459587/>

18Photo by Антон Дмитриев. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/Q3WVbAfdOoY>

19Photo by Maxim Hopman. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/lcysD7F8ycc>

20Photo by Sprinter_Lucio. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/photos/air-conditioner-air-conditioning-unit-6605973/>