How Solar PV (Photovoltaic) Panels Work


Solar panels are devices that convert sunlight into electricity, with the most common solar cells (solar panels are comprised of a multitude of solar cells, also known as photovoltaic cells) made from ultra-pure silicon and boron infused with phosphorous and covered in an antireflection coating.

While these cells are quite small, about the size of a postcard and a little under half a millimetre thick, they’ve become very effective over the years and have made solar power a very popular home improvement among Australian homeowners. In fact, most Australians surveyed state that installing solar panels is one of the very best home improvements it’s possible to undertake.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Solar panels produce electricity by way of the photovoltaic reaction, which is the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity at the atomic level. The photovoltaic reaction was first observed in 1839 by a French physicist, Edmund Bequere, who discovered that certain materials, when exposed to light, produce a small electric current. While Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his work on the subject, it wasn’t until 1954 that the first photovoltaic module would be built by Bell Laboratories.

So, how do they work? Silicon, which is used extensively in the manufacturing of solar cells, is a powerful semiconductor that can be specially treated to create an electric field that’s positive on one side and negative on the other. This is known as a positive-negative (p-n) junction.

Ordinarily, opposites attract, but the p-n junction drives positive and negative charges apart so that when the cell is hit by light, electrons are released from the atoms in the silicon and captured by the electrical conductors in the form of DC electricity. This is then converted by an inverter into AC electricity, the electricity that we use at home.

Increased Efficiency Gains

The first solar panel ever made was just 1 percent efficient, but the panels that are a common sight on the roofs of Australian homes now deliver 20 percent efficiency. According to an ABC article in 2016 by Dr Niraj Lal, “Researchers have achieved 39 percent efficiency for normal sunlight and an impressive 46 percent for concentrated light the equivalent of 300 suns … in the lab.” Not only are these cells extremely expensive but they’re also designed for use in space, however, it shows us what can be achieved and it also offers us an exciting glimpse of what we’ve got to look forward to.

Improvements in solar technology are occurring at an increasingly rapid rate, thanks mostly to the pioneering engineering ideas like advanced anti-reflection coatings, new material combinations and semiconductor processes that minimise electrical losses during the photovoltaic process. That means we can expect to see significant gains in efficiency taking place over the next two to three decades.

As a solar hot water services provider, Solar Repairs Perth keeps up-to-date with developments to further enable us to provide solutions that meet our clients’ evolving needs. To book a service for your solar hot water system and keep it functioning efficiently, call us today on (08) 9200 4331.