How Does Solar Energy Work? A Step by Step Guide

By Scott Laskey


Last Updated on January 25, 2021 by Scott Laskey
Mar 23

More California homeowners than ever are taking advantage of the tax credits and positive environmental impact offered by solar panel installation. In fact, California is No. 1 in U.S. solar energy capacity. According to data from the California Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), more than 3.7 million homes can be powered by the solar energy produced throughout our state.

If you’re one of the millions taking advantage of solar energy or considering a solar panel installation, you may be curious about how solar panels actually produce electricity. So how does solar energy work? It’s a fascinating process. Keep reading to learn how solar panels harness energy from the sun and convert it into usable electricity.

Solar Energy System Components

To fully understand how solar energy powers your home, it’s important to know the system components and their functions. There are five major parts of every solar energy system, and some homes have a battery bank that stores excess energy for use when the power grid is offline. Solar energy system components are as follows:

Solar Panel

solar panels on homeSolar panels are constructed from an array of solar cells, known as photovoltaic cells. Constructed of semiconductors, which absorb light and knock electrons loose, solar panels vary widely in size. Most household solar energy systems are comprised of a number of solar panels lined up, either on a roof or in a large, clear outdoor space. A group of solar panels is called a solar array.

The majority of today’s solar panels utilize crystalline silicon cells as the semiconductor. Silicon cells were introduced in 1954, and no other semiconductor has yet been found that matches silicon’s efficiency in solar panel construction.

Solar Panel Mount

solar panel mountDepending where your solar energy system is installed, you will need a solar panel mount that can handle the weight of the panels. The majority of roof-based solar panel mounts are constructed from extruded aluminum rails. In general, for every 100 watts of panels, one mounting bracket should be used for support.

In the case of a ground-based solar energy system, you’ll need a larger and sturdier mounting base. Poured concrete is typically the material used whether your system requires a pole, ballasted footing or foundation mount.


Charge Controller

solar charge controllerIf you’ve ever wondered, “how does solar energy work,” you have likely heard about the importance of a charge controller. Without a charge controller, your solar energy system lacks stability. The charge controller is a key player in your system, ensuring that the system isn’t overloaded.





solar energy inverterWhen your panels collect sunlight, they convert that light into direct current (DC) electricity. Most homes, however, utilize alternating current, or AC, electricity. The inverter is in charge of turning DC electricity into usable AC. Inverters vary widely in size as well as watt-hours and amp output. When you’re discussing the subject of “how do solar panels work” with your solar energy contractors at Sandbar Solar, we can help you select the right inverter for your usage needs.



Utility Meter

energy utility meterMost homeowners in California with solar panels are connected to the power grid. This is often referred to as a grid-intertied system. Even if you have a backup battery bank, the majority of California cities require that homes remain tied to the public grid. Thus, the power company uses a utility meter to measure and regulate the energy collected by your solar panels.




How Do Solar Panels Produce Electricity?

how solar energy works

There are essentially five steps in the process of solar energy production, beginning when sunlight hits your panels and culminating with feeding excess energy back to the grid. First, your solar panels collect particles of light, called photons, which knock electrons free from their atom hosts. This process is how direct current energy flow is generated.

As previously mentioned, our homes and businesses are powered with AC, rather than DC, electricity. The energy flow generated by your solar panel’s cells is sent to the inverter, which converts DC into usable alternating current (AC) electricity. This is step two.

The next step involves your electric utility meter, which is typically located on your home’s exterior. After measuring the energy drawn by your system, it feeds the excess back to the power grid. If you feed more energy than you utilize on cloudy days or during the night, you may receive money back from the energy company.

So now that you know the answer to the question of, “how does solar energy work,” your next step to energy independence is to get in touch with a trusted solar energy company in your area to discuss installation.

Let Solar Panels Work for You

To some homeowners, solar energy technology may seem akin to magic. As you have learned from this guide, however, solar panels function by converting photons into DC energy and then into usable AC energy to power our homes and businesses.

Here at Sandbar Solar, we’re proud to be at the forefront of the solar energy revolution. Sandbar Solar has been a leading provider of solar panel installation in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties for more than a decade. Contact us today to learn more about our services or to schedule a consultation.

About the Author

Scott is the founder of Sandbar Solar & Electric. With a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from UC San Diego, Scott has an NABCEP certification, and has lectured on and taught many high-tech construction practices and solar PV technical concepts to education institutions, including Stanford University and state-recognized electrician apprenticeship programs. Scott enjoys sharing his knowledge of the evolving renewable energy space and making a difference in his community.