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According to one recent study, by the end of 2018, the United States had a massive 64.2 GW of solar hardware installed – or roughly enough to power 12.3 million homes across the country continuously. The experts at Stanford estimate that there are nearly 1.47 million solar panels currently in use across the continental U.S. But perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is that American solar activity alone generates enough power every year to offset over 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, that has the positive environmental impact of planning over one billion trees annually.
How do solar panels work?
Everyone knows that solar panels convert light absorbed from the sun into useable energy. But how exactly does this happen? The process itself is quite scientific, and it’s worth exploring.
The solar panels themselves are made up of tiny cells that convert sunlight into that useable electricity. More often than not, they’re made up of silicon, although any semi-conductive material will do.
The start of the process
The start of the process begins when sunlight meets the solar panels, this activates those cells and creates an electric field. The electricity generated from that field then flows towards the panel’s outer edges into an essential component called a conductive wire.
That wire draws the electricity into another component on the inside of the panels – the inverter. As the name suggests, this is what transforms that electricity from DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current), otherwise known as the kind used to power environments like our homes.
Once inside the inverter, a separate wire is used to send that electricity to an electrical panel on the property. If you’re a homeowner, you’re already quite familiar with this – you probably know it as your breaker box. That box is what sends electricity all throughout your home as you need it.
what happens to any electricity that is not immediately needed?
That’s the beauty of it – it all gets sent through the nearby utility meter and onward into the electrical utility grid. As this happens, it actually causes your meter to run in reverse – thus crediting you for excess electricity generation and helping you save money on your monthly utility bills at the same time.
Depending on the situation, excess electricity may also be stored nearby in a large battery for use later. This stored energy can be particularly helpful in the event of a power outage or some other type of disruptive event. Usually, people who have this type of setup are known as “off the grid” because they’re not dependent on local energy sources at all.
However, in the vast majority of all situations, you will need to draw from the grid – particularly at night when your system isn’t working. Still, this use will be more than offset by the amount of electricity your solar panels generate during the day.