As the earth runs lower on natural resources and traditional forms of energy, we little humans have to rely on our creativity and technical ingenuity to keep our civilization humming along. One hopes that the future will see all kinds of wild advances in how we produce, use, and conserve power. In the meantime, the present day already boasts plenty of gadgets that are putting us on track toward a cleaner, high-powered world.
Solar panels are one of the most simple, easy-to-implement alternative energy technologies we have to date. They exploit simple principles of energy-transfer to bring electric power to your home without causing any environmentally harmful side-effects.
Most of us have seen futuristic solar panels lying atop roofs of houses or industrial sites. How exactly do they work? Well, each installation is a series of modules, arranged on the rooftop in a way that exposes them to daily sunlight. When the sun shines, it sends light rays called “photons” hurtling toward the earth. These photons contain energy. It’s the same energy that plants soak in and convert to organic materials that they then use for food.
Solar panels do something similar, in the sense that they convert the inherent energy inside photons into something useful. They make use of something called the photovoltaic effect, or an observed physical phenomenon in which photons hit a material surface and excite the particles in the material. Each module is covered in a thin silicon and cadmium-based film. When sunshine hits these, it excites electrons in the silicon and cadmium atoms – in other words, it gives them a push and makes them move. Now, Physics 101 tells us that when a particle starts moving, it has energy. Thus, the photovoltaic cycle is complete. The photons have done all the work by transferring their energy to the billions of electrons on your modules.
How does this energy become available to power lights, televisions and other electronics? Every module is connected by a series of electric conductors. The precise arrangement of wires directs the flow of energized particles to your home power system, providing current when you need it.
How cool is that? Energy is never created or lost – it’s just moved around, transformed, and harnessed for human use.
The first solar panels were used in space in the late 1950s. Now, the technology behind them offers owners the capability to monitor and control the amount of energy being soaked up from the sky. Installations now come with computer programs that precisely measure the amount of current being produced in each module. They allow users to pinpoint weak or problematic modules, and to see the precise amount of energy being produced over daily, monthly, and yearly time spans.
Solar panels are truly an incredible and necessary innovation. They represent the best of our ability to manipulate the rules of the natural world in order to help ourselves without doing any harm.