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How do solar panels generate electricity?

Posted on 7 February 2017

At Co-operative Energy, we’re doing all we can to help reduce climate change. One of our main goals is to obtain a big 75% of our energy from renewable energy sources, helping to improve the world we live in.

We want to pass down this outlook to our passionate customers, through a variety of energy tariff options, including our Green Pioneer tariff, and expert energy efficiency tips, which can also assist with reducing the cost of your energy bills.

In 2016, the 10 community solar sites we support through Power Purchase Agreements produced 2,999 MWh of energy, enough to power 770 homes for a year and offsetting 2,708 t of CO2 being released. In this article, we explore exactly how solar panels can generate electricity.

Solar panels explained

To put it simply, solar panels are made up of photovoltaic (PV) cells, which capture sunlight (radiant energy) before converting it into electricity. Connecting more of these PV cells together in one solar panel produces a bigger amount of power, offering efficient and affordable energy. The photovoltaic cells are created from silicon, which has special chemical properties that react with sunlight.

Interestingly, a domestic PV solar panel powering a family-sized home (installed at 4KW) has an average annual output of 3,400 kWh (kilowatt hour).

Key components of a solar panel

  • Photovoltaic solar panels
  • Inverter
  • Meter

Step-by-step: How solar panels generate electricity

how do solar panels generate electricity

How much energy does a typical solar farm generate

A standard solar farm, installed at 5MW (megawatts), can power 1,515 homes for a year, based on the average yearly household consumption at over 3,000 kWh.

Also known as a photovoltaic power station, a solar farm, like domestic systems, can be installed in a variety of sizes, depending on the location.

The advantages of solar panels

Solar energy is renewable: Sunlight is free and will not run out (for billions of years, anyway)! Therefore, it’s a highly reliable and renewable form of energy.

Solar panels reduce carbon emissions: The average domestic solar panel can save more than 30 tonnes of CO₂ over its lifetime, which can significantly help reduce climate change.

They’re quiet: Unlike wind turbines, solar panels produce electricity silently, making them ideal for domestic use.

Solar panels have low maintenance costs: As soon as they’re set up, they’ll start producing electricity. Solar panels don’t heavily rely on mechanical parts and so maintenance isn’t as common as it is with other energy products.

Solar panels have a diverse use: Did you know you can generate thermal heat using solar panels?

The disadvantages of solar panels

Solar panels have costly installation fees: One of the most expensive eco-friendly upgrades you can make, installing solar panels can cost anything between £5,000 - £8,000.

Solar panels rely on sunlight: Although they still produce energy during cloudy days, it isn’t as efficient. It’s also worth remembering that radiant energy cannot be collected during the night.

The production of solar panels is a polluter: The process of which a solar panel is created has been linked to the emission of greenhouse gases, although it’s still low in comparison to other energy efficient products.

Solar panels take up space: Placing solar panels on roofs are the best option, but they can be quite large and their appearance is often considered unappealing.

Sourcing energy from solar panels can help reduce your carbon footprint and assist with sustainability.  If you would like to change to our Green Pioneer tariff, which provides 100% green electricity, visit our switching page to find out how.

Want to find out about how other energy efficient installations work? Why not read about how wind turbines generate electricity

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