What is Photovoltaic Power?

B. Turner

Photovoltaic power is electricity produced using energy derived from the sun's rays. This solar power technology is an update on the traditional solar panel, which could only produce heat from sunlight. Photovoltaics uses large silicon panels to capture solar energy, which is then transformed into electricity that can be used to power homes, businesses, and eventually maybe even entire cities.

Solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb photovoltaic energy.
Solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb photovoltaic energy.

To produce photovoltaic power, large silicon panels are installed on rooftops or on stand-alone racks. During manufacturing, a doping agent is added to the silicon panels so that they are in a perpetually negatively-charged state. When the sun hits the panels, photons are absorbed into the silicon. The electrons in these new photons create an electron imbalance in the panels. To return the panel to a balanced state, some of the electrons escape the silicon into electrical receptors behind the panels.

Energy produced with solar power can be placed onto the power grid.
Energy produced with solar power can be placed onto the power grid.

The energy from these electrons is what is need to create photovoltaic power. The electrical receptors are connected to a controller box, then to a large battery pack that absorbs the power input as direct current (DC). This DC power is then directed to an inverter unit, which converts the DC power to alternating current (AC) power, which is the type of power used in most homes. The battery pack will store power until it is needed, and will automatically recharge itself as it is emptied.

The main advantage of photovoltaic power is that it is one of the cleanest forms of energy available. It harnesses a completely natural energy source, and requires no fossil fuels or hazardous materials to operate. Photovoltaic panels are generally warrantied for 20-25 years, and require little or no maintenance during that period other than routine cleaning.

While there are obvious benefits to the use of photovoltaics, there are some major drawbacks as well. First, this type of technology requires a substantial upfront investment that is simply beyond the budget of many homeowners. Second, the payback period for photovoltaic power is very long, often as long as the life of the panels themselves. Finally, many homes simply don't have the space or sun exposure needed to effectively utilize these panels.

As technology evolves and prices decline, photovoltaic power may become a more viable energy source for the masses. For now, it's a clean, low-impact energy provider for those looking to live off the grid.

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