how do solar cells work

How do solar photovoltaic (PV) cells work?

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You’ve probably seen solar panels on rooftops all around your neighborhood, but do you know how they actually work to generate electricity? In this article, we’ll take a look at what a photovoltaic solar cell is – the technology behind a solar panel that makes it possible to create energy from the sun.

Solar cells produce energy in three steps

A solar photovoltaic (PV) cell turns sunlight into usable electricity in three general steps:

  1. Light is absorbed and knocks electrons loose
  2. Loose electrons flow, creating a current
  3. The current is captured and transferred to wires

The photovoltaic effect is a complicated process, but these three steps are the basic way that energy from the sun gets converted into electricity by solar photovoltaic cells.


Solar cells are the building blocks of solar panels

A solar panel is made up of six different components, but arguably the most important one is the photovoltaic cell, which actually generates electricity. The conversion of sunlight into electrical energy by a solar cell is called the “photovoltaic effect”, hence why we refer to solar cells as “photovoltaic.”


photovoltaic cell

A solar photovoltaic cell. A typical solar panel for your home is made up of 60 PV cells.

Photovoltaic cells generate electricity by absorbing sunlight and using the light energy to create an electrical current. There are many photovoltaic cells within a single solar panel, and the current created by all of the cells together adds up to enough electricity to help power your home. A standard panel used in a rooftop residential system will have 60 cells linked together. Commercial solar installations often use larger panels with 72 or more photovoltaic cells.

How does a photovoltaic solar cell generate electricity?

Photovoltaic cells, through the photovoltaic effect, absorb sunlight and generate flowing electricity. This process varies depending on the type of solar technology, but there are a few steps common across all solar photovoltaic cells.

Step 1: Light is absorbed by the solar cell and knocks electrons loose

First, light strikes a photovoltaic cell and is absorbed by the semiconducting material it is made from (usually silicon). This incoming light energy causes electrons in the silicon to be knocked loose, which will eventually become the solar electricity you can use in your home.

Step 2: Electrons begin to flow, creating an electrical current

There are two layers of silicon used in photovoltaic cells, and each one is specially treated, or “doped”, to create an electric field, meaning one side has a net positive charge and one has a net negative charge. This electric field causes loose electrons to flow in one direction through the solar cell, generating an electrical current.

Step 3: The electrical current is captured and combined with other solar cells

Once an electrical current is generated by loose electrons, metal plates on the sides of each solar cell collect those electrons and transfer them to wires. At this point, electrons can flow as electricity through the wiring to a solar inverter and then throughout your home.


Many photovoltaic cells together produce solar electricity for your home

A photovoltaic cell on its own cannot produce enough usable electricity for more than a small electronic gadget. In order to produce the amount of energy a home might need, solar cells are wired together to create solar panels, which are installed in groups to form a solar energy system. A typical residential solar panel with 60 photovoltaic cells combined might produce anywhere from 220 to over 400 watts of power.

Depending on factors like temperature, hours of sunlight, and electricity use, property owners will need varying amounts of solar panels to produce enough energy. Regardless, installing a solar panel system will likely include several hundred solar photovoltaic cells working together to generate and electrical current. You can use the EnergySage Solar Calculator to get an idea of the savings you might see from a solar panel installation.

Install solar to start having photovoltaic cells work for you

Solar photovoltaic cells are the building blocks of solar panels, and any property owner can start generating free electricity from the sun with a solar panel installation. On the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, you can register your property to start receiving solar installation quotes from qualified installers. While all quotes involve solar panels made from photovoltaic cells, panel output can change based on equipment quality. If you are specifically interested in seeing quotes for high-efficiency solar panels, simply leave a note on your profile for installers to see.


2 thoughts on “How do solar photovoltaic (PV) cells work?

  1. Mark D. Reynolds

    I enjoyed your article. I am interested in the most efficient system on the market today, and also what the future holds related to better systems in the research and development area currently. I have yet to purchase a system, and am doing my research now. I am not in a hurry as i don’t expect to purchase anything for approximately a year.

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