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Last updated: 27 March 2024

How is Solar Energy Converted into Electricity?

How is solar energy converted into electricity

Solar power is one of the best technical advancements in renewable energy. By using the endless power of our sun, we can create electricity to run homes, businesses and more.

You might be familiar with seeing solar panels in the UK on roofs or placed in fields and gardens, but do you know how solar power is created?

Through a fascinating process known as photovoltaics, solar cells can take rays of sunlight and turn them into usable electricity. 

In this article, we’ll explore precisely how photovoltaics work to convert solar energy into renewable electricity and why this process is so beneficial to us all.

What is solar energy?

Solar energy is a type of renewable energy that is harnessed from the sun's rays. It is a clean, abundant, and sustainable energy source that has the potential to power a significant portion of our electricity needs and help mitigate climate change

Solar energy is considered renewable because it relies on the sun, continuously producing energy. In addition, unlike fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, solar energy does not produce harmful greenhouse gases or other pollutants when converted into electricity. As a result, solar power plays a vital role in reducing carbon emissions.

Solar energy can be captured and converted into usable electricity or heat. When used in heating, the technology is known as ‘solar thermal’. Most applications of solar energy, however, are used to produce electricity.

How is solar energy converted into electricity?

Solar energy is converted into electricity through photovoltaics, which involves using solar cells (also known as photovoltaic cells). These single cells are multiplied to make up solar panels. 

Each photovoltaic cell is made from semiconductive materials, such as silicon. There are usually two layers of material, one that is negatively charged and one positively charged (each known as a p-type and an n-type of semiconductor).

Using these materials means that when particles from the sun's rays (known as Photons) hit this material, it creates electric energy. 

This happens because the semiconductive material contains electrons, which carry an electric charge. When introduced to the conductive materials, they move around, generating the electric current.

how photovoltaic cell PV works

Step-by-step: How solar energy is converted to electricity

Now we understand how a solar cell creates an electric current. Let’s explore the steps involved in getting that energy into the home.

  1. Solar panels absorb sunlight:
    Solar panels are a critical tool for using photovoltaic technology. Once solar panels are installed, they can absorb solar rays.
  2. Inverter changes the current:
    Next, the solar panels' electrical current needs to be converted. It is a ‘Direct Current’ (DC) in its original state. However, it needs to be changed to an ‘Alternating Current’ (AC). 
    The difference concerns how electrons travel within each current's flow. To comply with the electricity used in the National Grid and most UK homes, you need to use AC. 
    The inverter is part of the solar panel system and will ensure the right current is sent into the home.
  3. Excess energy is stored:
    Once the home is sent enough energy via the inverter, any generated excess electricity can be stored. There are several ways to store excess solar energy and many benefits.
Solar Panel System
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Storing solar energy

One of the downsides to powering your home with solar energy is that solar panels cannot produce electricity when there is no sunlight, for example, at night. 

However, the solution to this issue is to use stored energy; you can do this in a few beneficial ways.

Solar Batteries

Depending on the number of solar panels you install on your roof, your solar panel system will likely produce more energy than you need during the day. You can store this excess energy in a solar battery

These solar batteries store excess solar power for you to access whenever needed. This allows you to continue using clean, renewable energy throughout the night and decrease energy costs. 

The benefit to this method is that you won’t need to access electricity from the National Grid, meaning you avoid volatile energy prices and always have a backup supply in case of power outages.

Grid Connection

There are also benefits to sending your excess energy back to the Grid. This method is often called ‘net metering’ or a ‘feed-in tariff’. These schemes allow homeowners who generate excess solar electricity to receive payment for selling power back to the grid

In the UK, the most current scheme of this type is known as the ‘Smart Export Guarantee’ (SEG). Various suppliers will pay a set tariff for each unit of energy you can supply to the grid. Each supplier can offer a different tariff, so it’s worth looking for the best option.

In our article, Smart Export Guarantee Explained, please find out more about this scheme.

Benefits of solar energy

Owning a renewal system offers homeowners many benefits. This technology allows you to operate your home on a completely renewable, clean energy source, saving you hundreds of pounds a year on energy bills.

Here are some of the benefits of solar energy and solar panels:

  • Reduced Bills
    Using solar panels to generate energy can reduce your reliance on the national grid, reducing your spending on high energy bills. Homes in the UK can save up to £1,190 per year when switching to solar panels.
  • Renewable and Sustainable Energy
    The sun beams down around 173,000 terawatts of solar radiation every hour. This offers several thousand times the amount of energy humans could ever consume. This makes solar energy one of the most sustainable, renewable and promising energy sources for the future.
  • Clean and Environmentally Safe
    Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy production generates no greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutants, or harmful byproducts. This is instrumental in combating climate change and reducing the overall environmental impact of energy generation.
    The use of solar power significantly contributes to reducing carbon emissions and helps to improve air quality. By using solar panels, you will significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
  • Increased Property Value
    Typically, homes with solar panels are a more attractive purchasing option for buyers in the UK. It is thought homes with solar systems sell up to 20% faster than those without. They can also increase the value of your property significantly.
  • Low Running Costs
    Once installed, solar panels require relatively low maintenance, meaning you can save money on costly repairs. Solar photovoltaic systems have few moving parts that require minimal inspections or regular maintenance, making them very cost-effective in the long term.
  • Versatility and Adaptability
    Solar panels can be installed on many surfaces, including rooftops, open land, building facades, and portable devices. This adaptability makes solar energy accessible to various applications, from residential and commercial buildings to remote areas and off-grid installations, contributing to energy access for all.
    They also come in various materials and sizes to suit different budgets. Find out more about the types of solar panels available. 
How is Solar Energy Converted into Electricity?

Conclusions 

The ability to turn the sun's rays into usable energy is a remarkable feat of technology. Using photovoltaics, we can create renewable energy for our homes, saving money and the environment.

Solar energy offers homeowners several benefits and transforms how we power everything, from appliances to whole businesses. By utilising storage options like solar batteries, we can extend the time we can use solar power and run even more technology on a renewable energy source. 

Converting solar energy into electricity is a transformative step for renewable energy and enables people to live more sustainably. Lowering their carbon footprint and protecting the environment whilst saving money are the ideal starting points for a promising future for our planet.

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