The Power of Photovoltaics

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Photovoltaics, also referred to as PV or solar electric systems, convert sunlight into electricity.  Harnessing the sun’s rays is a non-polluting way to provide power to our homes and buildings, large and small.  In many circumstances, photovoltaics will generate more electricity than is needed by a home’s occupants, and some utility companies will even allow that excess electricity to be sold back to them.  Recent increases in federal tax incentives, and state and utility programs, have brought the cost of photovoltaics down to an affordable level.

You may recognize photovoltaic panels as seen atop the roof of a home or other building.  These solar panels can be mounted at a fixed angle facing south, or they can be mounted on a tracking device that follows the sun, allowing them to capture the most sunlight over the course of a day.

Advances in research and development of solar technology has allowed for thin-cell designs, or building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV).  Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. Thin film technology has made it possible for solar cells to now double as rooftop shingles, roof tiles, building facades, or the glazing for skylights or atria. The solar cell version of items such as shingles offer the same protection and durability as ordinary asphalt shingles.

How do solar panels work?  Sunlight is made up of tiny packets of energy called photons.  Every hour enough of this energy reaches the earth to meet the world’s energy demands for a whole year.   Photovoltaic panels consist of many solar cells.   These are made of materials, like silicon, one of the most common elements on earth.  The individual cell is designed with a positive and negative layer to create an electric field, just like in a battery.  As photons are absorbed in the cell, their energy causes electrons to become free, and the electrons move toward the bottom of the cell, and exit through a connecting wire.  This flow of electrons is what we call electricity.

Through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar America Cities partnership, 25 major U.S. cities are working to accelerate the adoption of solar energy technologies for a cleaner, more secure energy future. The city solar partnerships have committed to developing a sustainable solar infrastructure that removes market barriers and encourages the adoption of solar energy by residents and businesses. These cities are taking a comprehensive, city-wide approach that lays the foundation for a viable solar market and provides a model for other cities to follow.

Learn more at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website.

Tag(s): Energy, Greening the Home, Greening the Office, The Great Green Outdoors

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