solar cells

How does a photovoltaic solar cell work?

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 photovoltaic solar cells, or solar cells, which are electronic components that generate electricity when exposed to photons, or particles of light—this conversion is called the photovoltaic effect. In this article, we’ll explain how PV cells work. Specifically, we’ll examine the science of silicon solar cells, the solar cells making up the vast majority of solar panels.

Solar cells: 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, made up of particles called photons, into electrical energy by a solar cell is called the “photovoltaic effect”- hence why we refer to solar cells as “photovoltaic”, or PV for short.

Solar PV cells generate electricity by absorbing sunlight and using that 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 array will have 60 cells linked together. Commercial solar installations often use larger panels with 72 or more photovoltaic cells.

How do solar cells work?

A solar PV cell works 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 is converted into usable electricity by solar cells in solar panels.

What are the main types of solar cells?

There are two main types of solar cells used today: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. While there are other ways to make PV cells (for example, thin-film cells, organic cells, or perovskites), monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar cells (which are made from the element silicon) are by far the most common residential and commercial options.

Silicon solar cells: monocrystalline and polycrystalline

A monocrystalline solar cell is made from a single crystal of the element silicon. On the other hand, polycrystalline silicon solar cells are made by melting together many shards of silicon crystals. This leads to two key differentiators between mono- and poly- cells. In terms of efficiency, monocrystalline solar cells are generally higher than their polycrystalline counterparts. This is due to the use of a single, aligned crystal of silicon, resulting in an easier flow for the electrons generated through the photovoltaic effect. Polycrystalline cells have shards of silicon aligned in many different directions which makes electricity flow slightly more difficult. However, solar panels made with polycrystalline solar cells are usually less expensive than monocrystalline options. This is because the manufacturing process for a polycrystalline cell is simpler and requires fewer specialized processes.

Thin-film solar cells

Thin-film solar cells are what they sound like: much slimmer, lighter-weight solar cells that are often flexible, while still remaining durable. There are four common materials used to make thin-film PV cells: Cadmium Telluride (CdTe), Amorphous Silicon (a-Si), Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS), and Gallium Arsenide (GaAs).

Thin-film solar cells are not nearly as popular as traditional crystalline silicon options for residential and commercial installations. Thin-film panels remain behind silicon panels in efficiency, and for most homes and businesses, this means they won’t be able to produce enough electricity from thin-film options. However, companies like First Solar have built entire businesses on producing panels with thin-film solar cells (in their instance, CdTe cells) for primarily large-scale utility or corporate solar installations.

Organic solar cells

Solar panels made with organic solar cells are not commercially viable quite yet, but organic solar panels have many of the same benefits as thin-film panels. The biggest difference-maker for organic solar cells is their composition: while traditional and thin-film solar panels are made from silicon or other similar semiconductors, organic solar cells are made from carbon-based materials. They’re often referred to as “plastic solar cells” or “polymer solar cells” for this reason.

Organic solar cells are flexible, durable, and can even be made transparent. Heard of solar windows? If they ever become a widespread product, they may very well be built with transparent organic solar cells.

Perovskite solar cells

A “perovskite” is any material that has the same crystal structure as the compound calcium titanium oxide, a semiconductor material much like silicon. Perovskite solar cells use a man-made calcium titanium oxide-based material to create another type of thin-film solar panel.

Like organic solar cells, perovskites are not widely available yet. However, their low production costs and high potential efficiencies make them an intriguing option as the solar industry continues to expand and develop better and better solar production options.

The photovoltaic effect explained

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

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

First, light strikes a photovoltaic cell and the photons are absorbed by the semiconductor 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 (known as “doping”) 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 an electrical current. You can use the EnergySage Solar Calculator to get an idea of the savings you might see from a solar panel installation.

Increasing the efficiency of PV solar cells

The efficiency of a PV cell is the amount of electrical power that’s coming out of the cell compared to the energy from the light shining on it—this number demonstrates how effective the cell is at converting energy. And as mentioned, there are a variety of factors both internal and external to solar cells themselves, like light intensity and wavelength, that affect the amount of electricity a PV cell can produce. 

One important element of PV semiconductors is the range of wavelengths of light the material (silicon, thin-film, perovskite, etc.) can absorb and convert to energy. Light is made up of photons vibrating at a wide range of wavelengths, and the wavelengths that match the absorbable range of a solar semiconductor (known as a bandgap) can be captured by that solar cell. A strategy that will help improve PV cell efficiency in the future is to layer multiple semiconductors together to make multijunction solar cells. Each layer of a multijunction solar cells can have a different bandgap – meaning it will absorb a different part of the solar spectrum, making better use of the sunlight than a traditional single-junction cell. 

Commonly asked questions related to how solar cells work

Discussing the science behind PV cells can be complicated and confusing at times, making every topic seem like nothing more than jargon—words like photons, semiconductors, and voltage with no clear explanation for the average solar shopper. We understand how difficult it can be to gather answers, especially as you embark on your new renewable energy journey. Check out a few of the most common questions we’ve been hearing about solar PV cells:

How do PV cells work and what do they do? 

To put it simply, PV cells, or solar cells, generate electricity by absorbing sunlight and using the light energy to create an electrical current. But the question still remains, how do they do that? The process of how PV cells work can be broken down into three basic steps: first, a PV cell absorbs light and knocks electrons loose. Then, an electric current is created by the loose flowing electrons. Finally, the electrical current is captured and transferred to wires. 

What is the difference between photovoltaic cells and solar cells? 

Essentially, solar cells and photovoltaic cells are one in the same, and the terms can be used interchangeably in most instances. Both photovoltaic solar cells and solar cells are electronic components that generate electricity when exposed to photons, resulting in the production of electricity. The conversion of sunlight into electrical energy through a solar cell is known as the photovoltaic effect, which is why we refer to solar cells as “photovoltaic.” 

What is the function of a PV cell? 

PV cells are vital in the production of electricity. However, a PV cell on its own can’t produce enough renewable energy for an entire home. So, while the main function of a PV cell is to generate electricity, we need to wire several solar cells together to create a functional solar panel. From there, an entire solar panel array must be installed to produce enough energy for a residential house. Read our article about how solar panels work to learn more. 

Install solar panels today to start generating energy from the sun

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 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 to notify installers.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is a researcher and content writer at EnergySage, where he's an expert on current issues–and new technology!–in the solar industry. With a background in environmental and geological science, Jacob brings an analytical perspective and passion for conservation to help solar shoppers make the right energy choices for their wallet and the environment. Outside of EnergySage, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or learning a new, obscure board game.

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