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Solar Panel System Components

How do solar panels work?

In 1954, scientists at Bell Laboratories discovered that silicon, an element found in sand, created an electric charge when it was exposed to sunlight. This discovery led to the development of solar cells that captured the sun’s energy and turned it into electricity. Since then, the technology has evolved, and solar power systems now provide incredibly attractive financial benefits for consumers.

The sun provides a continuous source of power and solar panels allow us to convert that sunlight into electricity. Throughout the day, cells on your solar panels absorb energy from sunlight. Circuits within the cells collect that energy and turn it into direct current (DC) electricity. The DC electricity is passed through a device called an inverter to convert it to the alternating current (AC) electricity used by homes and businesses. You can use that electricity in your home/business, store it with a battery, or send it back to the grid.

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Solar PV systems have four main components:

  • Solar photovoltaic panels ("solar panels")
  • Inverters
  • Racking and mounting systems
  • Performance monitoring systems

Solar Panels

Solar panels collect and convert the sun’s energy into electricity. They are a key component of a solar panel system. Most commonly available panels today are either poly-crystalline or mono-crystalline solar panels.

The key differences between poly- and mono-crystalline panels are in efficiency and cost. Typically, mono-crystalline panels are more efficient (and thus, more expensive) than poly-crystalline panels.

Inverters (microinverter vs string inverter)

Silicon cells in your solar panels collect energy from the sun and convert it into direct current (DC) electricity.  Most homes and businesses, however, use alternating current (AC).  Inverters change the DC electricity from your panels into usable AC electricity. There are three basic approaches to solar inverters:

  • Microinverters: Microinverters are installed on each solar panel which allows each panel to maximize production.  Microinverters maximize performance if panels are shaded at different times of the day. The cost of microinverters are higher than that of string inverters but performance and monitoring benefits supercede those of string inverters.

  • String (or centralized) Inverter: A single inverter is used to connect your entire array of solar panels to your electrical panel. String inverters are the least expensive inverter option.  However, if one of the panels stops producing electricity due to temporary shading, then it can bring down the performance of the whole system.

  • Power Optimizers: Power optimizers are a hybrid of microinverter and string inverters. Like microinverters, power optimizers are installed at each panel, however, instead of converting the DC electricity from the solar panels into AC electricity, the optimizers “condition” the DC electricity before sending it to a centralized inverter.  In addition, optimizers perform well when one or more panels are shaded.  Power optimizer systems tend to cost more than string inverter systems, but less than microinverter systems.

Racking and Mounting Systems

Racking and mounting systems are used to affix the panels to either your roof or the ground at the  best angle for capturing maximal sunlight.

For optimal performance, solar panels should face South and be installed at an angle between 30 and 45 degrees (depending on how far you are from the equator).  Panels can also be installed facing East or West, but they will produce less electricity than those facing South.

There are two types of mounts: (a) fixed mounts, in which the panels remain stationary; and (b) track mounts, which allow panels to “follow” the sun as it moves across the sky during the day (single-axis track mounts) and during the changing seasons (dual-axis track mounts).

Performance Monitoring Systems

Performance monitoring systems provide detailed information about the activity of your solar energy system allowing you to measure and track the amount of produced electricity.

A monitoring system can provide significant value over the lifetime of your solar energy system by helping to identify performance issues thereby ensuring maximized electricity production (and therefore the financial returns) of your solar energy system.

Any issues with solar panel performance are usually related to electricity production.  Monitoring the system's performance will allow issues to be proactively identified and addressed.

There are two types of monitoring systems:

  • On-site Monitoring: The device is physically located on your property and records the amount of produce electricity.
  • Remote Monitoring: Your solar PV system transmits its performance data to a monitoring service that you can access online or with a mobile device.