Solar power is usable energy generated from the sun in the form of electric or thermal energy. Solar energy is captured in a variety of ways, the most common of which is with photovoltaic solar panels that convert the sun’s rays into usable electricity. Aside from using photovoltaics to generate electricity, solar energy is commonly used in thermal applications to heat indoor spaces or fluids. Residential and commercial property owners can install solar hot water systems and design their buildings with passive solar heating in mind to fully take advantage of the sun’s energy with solar technology.

Solar panels are installed at three main scales: residential, commercial, and utility. Residential-scale solar is typically installed on rooftops of homes or in open land (ground-mounted) and is generally between 5 and 20 kilowatts (kW), depending on the size of a property. Commercial solar energy projects are generally installed at a greater scale than residential solar. Though individual installations can vary greatly in size, commercial-scale solar serves a consistent purpose: to provide on-site solar power to businesses and non-profits. Finally, utility-scale solar projects are typically large, several megawatt (MW) installations that provide solar energy to a large number of utility customers.

Benefits of Solar

  • Eliminate Electric Bills
  • Earn Great Returns
  • Avoid Utility Inflation
  • Increased Property Values
  • U.S. Energy Independence
  • Create Jobs
  • Protect the Environment
  • Virtually no maintenance as solar panels can last for more than 25 years

How Does Solar Energy Work?

A solar panel (also known as a solar module) consists of a layer of silicon cells, a metal frame, a glass casing unit, and wiring to transfer electric current from the silicon. Silicon (atomic #14 on the periodic table) is a nonmetal with conductive properties that allow it to absorb and convert sunlight into usable electricity. When light hits a silicon cell, the light causes electrons in the silicon to be set in motion, initiating a flow of electric current. This is known as the “photovoltaic effect,” and it describes the general functionality of solar panel tech.

The science of generating electricity with solar panels boils down to this photovoltaic effect. It was first discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel and can be thought of as a property of specific materials (known as semiconductors) that allows them to create an electric current when they are exposed to sunlight.

The photovoltaic process works through the following broad steps:

1. The silicon photovoltaic solar cell absorbs solar radiation
2. When the sun’s rays interact with the silicon cell, electrons begin to move, creating a flow of electric current
3. Wires capture and feed this direct current (DC) electricity to a solar inverter to be converted to alternating current (AC) electricity

The Cost of Solar Energy

Concurrent with an increase in solar panel efficiency, the cost of solar energy has fallen substantially. In the last decade alone, the cost of a solar panel installation fell over 60 percent, and many industry experts predict that prices will continue to fall in the years to come:

Additionally, depending upon where you live, several rebates or incentives for solar power may contribute towards lowering the cost of solar energy even further. Nationwide, the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is one of the primary incentives available to anyone interested in solar energy, as it allows you to deduct 26 percent of the cost of installing a solar system from your federal taxes. This incentive won’t last forever – in 2021, the federal ITC steps down to 22%, and then goes away completely for residential solar installations in 2022.

Wisconsin net metering, dropping the cost of solar power even further.

Additional Benefits

  • Pollution free and causes no greenhouse gases
  • Reduces dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels
  • Available every day (even cloudy days can produce power)
  • Increases property value without increasing property tax
  • Return on investment may reduce or eliminate electric bills
  • Federal grants, tax incentives, and rebate programs are available to reduce initial costs
  • Excess power may be sold back to the power company to offset your usage on lower producing days and times.
  • Can be installed virtually anywhere
  • Benefits the economy by creating solar energy jobs

Solar Energy is a Renewable Power Source

Solar energy is a clean, inexpensive, renewable power source that is harness able nearly everywhere in the world – any point where sunlight hits the surface of the earth is a potential location to generate solar power. And since solar energy comes from the sun, it represents a limitless source of power. Renewable energy technologies generate electricity from resources that are infinite. Compare, for instance, producing electricity with renewable resources to doing so with fossil fuels. It took hundreds of thousands of years for oil, gas and coal to form, so every time one of those resources are burned to create electricity, that finite resource is moved marginally closer to depletion. Using a renewable resource – such as wind, solar and hydropower – to generate electricity, does not deplete that resource. There will always be consistent sunlight shining on Earth’s surface, and after turning sunlight into electricity, there is still an infinite amount of sunlight to turn into electricity in the future. That is what makes solar power, by nature, renewable energy.

Solar Energy + Battery Storage

The rapid proliferation of solar power nationwide and globally has also led to parallel growth in several adjacent areas. Notably, energy storage systems and electric vehicles are two sectors poised to explode alongside solar power by augmenting the benefits of solar.

Given that solar panels can only produce power when the sun is shining, storing produced but unused energy throughout the day for use at a later time has become increasingly important. For instance, solar batteries store electricity and can be drawn on during periods of low solar production. What’s more, solar-plus-storage solutions work for all scales of solar panel installations and provide many added benefits, from energy reliability to grid resiliency and lower-cost power.