how do solar cells work

How does a photovoltaic solar cell work?

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You’ve probably seen solar panels on rooftops all around your neighborhood, but do you know how they actually work to generate electricity? In this article, we’ll take a look at what a photovoltaic solar cell is – the technology behind a solar panel that makes it possible to create energy from the sun. Specifically, we’ll examine the science of silicon solar cells, the solar cells making up the vast majority of solar panels.

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Solar cells produce energy in three steps

A solar photovoltaic (PV) cell works in three general steps:

  1. Light is absorbed and knocks electrons loose
  2. Loose electrons flow, creating a current
  3. The current is captured and transferred to wires

The photovoltaic effect is a complicated process, but these three steps are the basic way that energy from the sun is converted into usable electricity by solar cells in solar panels.

Solar cells are the building blocks of solar panels

A solar panel is made up of six different components, but arguably the most important one is the photovoltaic cell, which actually generates electricity. The conversion of sunlight into electrical energy by a solar cell is called the “photovoltaic effect”, hence why we refer to solar cells as “photovoltaic.”

photovoltaic cell
A typical solar photovoltaic cell. A typical solar panel for your home is made up of 60 PV cells.

Solar PV cells generate electricity by absorbing sunlight and using that light energy to create an electrical current. There are many photovoltaic cells within a single solar panel, and the current created by all of the cells together adds up to enough electricity to help power your home. A standard panel used in a rooftop residential system will have 60 cells linked together. Commercial solar installations often use larger panels with 72 or more photovoltaic cells.

Types of solar cells: monocrystalline and polycrystalline

There are two main types of solar cells used today: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. While there are other ways to make solar cells (for example, thin-film cells, organic cells, or perovskites), monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar cells are by far the most common residential and commercial options.

A monocrystalline solar cell is made from a single crystal of the element silicon. On the other hand, polycrystalline silicon solar cells are made by melting together many shards of silicon crystals. This leads to two key differentiators between mono- and poly- cells. In terms of efficiency, monocrystalline solar cells are generally higher than their polycrystalline counterparts. This is due to the use of a single, aligned crystal of silicon, resulting in an easier flow for the electrons generated through the photovoltaic effect. Polycrystalline cells have shards of silicon aligned in many different directions which makes electricity flow slightly more difficult. However, solar panels made with polycrystalline solar cells are usually less expensive than monocrystalline options. This is because the manufacturing process for a polycrystalline cell is simpler and requires fewer specialized processes.

How does a silicon solar cell generate electricity?

Silicon solar cells, through the photovoltaic effect, absorb sunlight and generate flowing electricity. This process varies depending on the type of solar technology, but there are a few steps common across all solar photovoltaic cells.

Step 1: Light is absorbed by the PV cell and knocks electrons loose

First, light strikes a photovoltaic cell and is absorbed by the semiconducting material it is made from (usually silicon). This incoming light energy causes electrons in the silicon to be knocked loose, which will eventually become the solar electricity you can use in your home.

Step 2: Electrons begin to flow, creating an electrical current

There are two layers of silicon used in photovoltaic cells, and each one is specially treated, or “doped”, to create an electric field, meaning one side has a net positive charge and one has a net negative charge. This electric field causes loose electrons to flow in one direction through the solar cell, generating an electrical current.

Step 3: The electrical current is captured and combined with other solar cells

Once an electrical current is generated by loose electrons, metal plates on the sides of each solar cell collect those electrons and transfer them to wires. At this point, electrons can flow as electricity through the wiring to a solar inverter and then throughout your home.

Many photovoltaic cells together produce solar electricity for your home

A photovoltaic cell on its own cannot produce enough usable electricity for more than a small electronic gadget. In order to produce the amount of energy a home might need, solar cells are wired together to create solar panels, which are installed in groups to form a solar energy system. A typical residential solar panel with 60 photovoltaic cells combined might produce anywhere from 220 to over 400 watts of power.

Depending on factors like temperature, hours of sunlight, and electricity use, property owners will need varying amounts of solar panels to produce enough energy. Regardless, installing a solar panel system will likely include several hundred solar photovoltaic cells working together to generate and electrical current. You can use the EnergySage Solar Calculator to get an idea of the savings you might see from a solar panel installation.

Install solar panels today to start generating energy from the sun

Solar photovoltaic cells are the building blocks of solar panels, and any property owner can start generating free electricity from the sun with a solar panel installation. On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can register your property to start receiving solar installation quotes from qualified installers. While all quotes involve solar panels made from photovoltaic cells, panel output can change based on equipment quality. If you are specifically interested in seeing quotes for high-efficiency solar panels, simply leave a note on your profile for installers to see.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is a researcher and content writer at EnergySage, where he focuses primarily on current issues–and new technology!–in the solar industry. With a background in environmental and geological science, Jacob brings an analytical perspective and passion for conservation to help solar shoppers make the right energy choices for their wallet and the environment. Outside of EnergySage, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or learning a new, obscure board game.

12 thoughts on “How does a photovoltaic solar cell work?

  1. AvatarAndre Luis de Albuquerque

    Dear Jacob, here in Brasil the goverment wants to remove subsidies to who wants to install solar panel in their homes. Without the subsidies the investment for acquiring and assembling the plates would become unviable.


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