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What is Photovoltaic Energy?

By Stacy Taylor
Updated May 17, 2024
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Photovoltaic energy is produced when sunlight is converted into energy with the use of solar cells or semiconductors. These semiconducting cells are usually made of silicon and do not contain any corrosive materials or moving parts. As long as the solar cells are exposed to light, they will produce photovoltaic energy with a minimum of maintenance. This energy is also environmentally clean, quiet, and safe.

The term "photovoltaic" has two parts: photo, a Greek word meaning light, and voltaic, a reference to electrical energy innovator Alessandro Volta. In 1839, French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, the production of a volt by use of a semiconductor. This discovery prompted further experimentation with light sources and semiconductors, which led to the invention of solar cells that produce photovoltaic energy.

Individual solar cells, also called photovoltaic cells, are manufactured in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes just one cell is needed to power a device, but most often many cells are connected to one another to form solar panels or modules. These modules can then be connected to create photovoltaic arrays that can be used to power small buildings or large complexes. The resulting output of photovoltaic energy is dependent upon the size of the array. The size may vary, depending on the amount of available sunlight and the amount of power needed.

Even though the power output of a photovoltaic energy system depends on the overall amount of light exposure, it will still generate energy on cloudy or overcast days. To store this energy for later transmission, a variety of storage systems are available to consumers. Most reliable storage systems use a combination of rechargeable batteries and energy-storing capacitors, some of which can be designed for AC or DC power.

The amount of power available on cloudy days and at night in a photovoltaic energy system depends on the energy output of the photovoltaic modules and the battery arrangement. Adding additional modules and batteries will increase the available power, but will also increase the cost of the system. For best results, a thorough analysis of needs vs. cost must be conducted in order to create a system design that will balance cost and need with convenience of use. Systems that are well-designed offer the opportunity for expansion or reduction as energy needs increase or decrease.

Photovoltaic energy is emerging as a viable solution to energy problems worldwide. Its current uses include power stations, transportation, rural electricity supplies, and solar roadways. While still a long way from becoming the world’s major energy source, ongoing research into photovoltaic energy may bring the promise of hope to the future.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1001701 — On Jun 05, 2019

All of this pomp and stance of creating a fusion reactor above parity to power the world's energy needs.

Yet for centuries, mankind has been burning fuels to keep our living conditions palatable. We fight the heat the sun creates by burning fossil fuels to air condition our homes, businesses. Instead of fighting with the sun, now we can accept enough power to air condition our living , working spaces, perhaps power our cars and it is all because we can use fusion through emitted photons to power our lives through the fusion reactor: our very own sun.

By anon116740 — On Oct 07, 2010

I thought it was pretty good. I am using it to study for a test tomorrow.

By GiraffeEars — On Oct 03, 2010

@ Chicada & GlassAxe- You two made some good points about solar energy, but I just wanted to let people know that nearly all sources of energy are reliant on the suns energy. Fossil fuels are nothing more than stored reserves of prehistoric solar energy. Wind, tidal, and hydroelectric energy are only possible because of solar energy. Only nuclear and geothermal energy are not directly dependent on the sun.

My point is this; since the sun can power all of the earth's natural systems and still have huge quantities of energy to spare, why not work our hardest to develop energy systems that can maximize the sun's energy? It only makes sense.

By GlassAxe — On Oct 03, 2010

@ Chicada- You forgot to mention the importance of solar energy for power generation in consumer goods. Photovoltaic renewable energy will play an important role in consumer goods like cars, boats, consumer goods, etc. It could even be used on a large scale in the military.

Photovoltaic panels are being developed so that they are flexible, cheap to manufacture, and can be placed on almost any surface. New technologies in development are solar panels that consumers can paint onto surfaces, and solar panels that can be printed onto plastic film. Some production cars already use solar panels as a power source for air conditioning, radio, and other auxiliary electronics. Solar panels could be integrated into the decking and sides of boats, sewn onto military tents, and eventually painted onto Humvees. The possibilities are endless. It's all interesting stuff, and National Geographic Magazine had a feature article on these solar technologies about a year ago.

By chicada — On Oct 03, 2010

This article did a great job of summarizing photovoltaic solar energy. Photovoltaic energy will be an important part of a decentralized American energy grid. Photovoltaic solar is best used for small to medium scale utility power generation and residential and commercial power generation.

When this solar technology is combined with thermal solar energy technology and an upgraded energy delivery system, the United States could have a reliable and less vulnerable energy system. Solar energy has the potential to meet a large portion of the world's electricity needs.

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