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What follows is basic history about solar panels and information to help you know what
solar panels to buy.

     


Solar panels produce electricity from sunlight. The first solar panel-powered satellite
was launched in 1958 by Hoffman Electronics, and until the late 1970s solar panels
were used primarily to power space satellites, lights, and small electronics like
calculators and watches. In the early 1990s Germany and Japan initiated long-term
solar panel-installation incentive programs that resulted in lower costs for solar panel
power and spurred the growth of robust PV industries in both countries.

        


In 2006 California made a major commitment to solar power by adopting the California
Solar Initiative, a ten-year incentive program with the goal of installing 3,000 megawatts
of solar panels on the equivalent of one-million rooftops. This program continues the
solar panel incentives started in 1998, but the long-term commitment to supporting solar
will have a profound effect on the amount of solar installed.

Solar panels are used extensively in rural areas that are not serviced by the utility grid.
These are called off grid solar power systems. This article applies primarily to on-grid
or grid-tied systems that are receiving power from an electric utility. For a wealth of
information about both types of systems we recommend Home Power magazine, and
the Florida Solar Energy Center.

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Basic System Operation: When sunlight hits the solar panel's cells, direct current (DC)
flows through the inverter, which converts it to alternating current (AC). The AC power
then flows directly into the building (if there is demand), or into backup batteries if the
system has them, or to the utility. When the power is flowing back to the utility grid, the
electricity meter turns backward.

     


The Components: Photovoltaic cells are the core of the solar panel. They are made up
of at least two layers of semiconductor material (usually pure silicon infused with boron
and phosphorous). One layer has a positive charge, the other a negative charge. When
sunlight strikes the solar panel, photons from the light are absorbed by the
semiconductor atoms, which then release electrons. The electrons, freed from the
negative layer of semiconductor, flow to the positive layer.....thereby producing an
electrical current.Since the electric current flows in one direction (like a battery), the
electricity generated is called direct current (DC). Many individual cells are wired
together in a sealed weatherproof unit called a solar module or panel.

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There are three types of solar panels: single crystal, multi- or poly-crystalline, and
amorphous silicon. Each of these solar panel types is estimated to last at least twenty-
five years. Some estimate that forty years is a reasonable expectation. The longevity
rating of a solar panel refers to the number of years before the unit starts producing only
80 percent of its original power rating. For instance, some solar panels are warranted to
produce at least 80 percent of their full-rated power after twenty-five years. Instead of
stopping production completely, a solar panel will gradually produce less and less
power over decades. Single-crystal solar panels are currently the most efficient type
available, meaning that they produce the most power per square foot of module. The
cells are fragile so they must be mounted in a rigid frame, and the solar panels usually
have a polka dot or checkered pattern.

Multicrystalline solar panels are made of cells cut from multiple crystals that are grown
together in an ingot. They are similar to single crystal cells in module structure but
slightly less efficient since they require a bit more surface area to produce the same
amount of electricity.

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Amorphous silicon solar panels (e.g. thin film) are made from cells created by
depositing a micro-thin layer of silicon directly onto a sheet of glass, plastic, or other
substrate. Although they are less efficient and require up to 50 percent more space,
they can be mounted on a flexible backing, making them easier to transport and ideal
for building-integrated uses, such as roofing tiles or shingles.

Solar panels are wired together into a PV array, and the electricity they produce is fed
through an inverter that changes the direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC),
making it suitable for homes and business, and compatible with the electric grid. The
inverter is the major electronic appliance associated with a grid-tied PV system.

    


Solar panels have become something of a catchphrase in the green movement this decade. They trumpet the recent
advances, both scientific breakthroughs and manufacturing triumphs. They point at the bright, glittering future of solar
power, but who are they, and what does what they say mean for you as a consumer? To understand what the culture
around     today stands for, what the people involved in the conversation over the future of solar power are
talking about, and where the possibilities depart from reality, it¶s helpful to know a little bit about the history of solar
power.

Solar power is a form of renewable energy, and that itself is a big part of the green movement¶s agenda. The green
movement would be the ³they´ referred to in the preceding paragraph. Going green means living within a balance that
must exist between you and your environment, a balance that humanity has too often let fall to the wayside in recent
times. It means to minimize your impact on this earth, and offset or even eliminate your use of nonrenewable
resources. These goals may seem lofty and unrealistic. Backers of the green movement would counter that the
unrealistic position to hold is expecting our species to be able to go on consuming as we currently do indefinitely with
no repercussions.
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The primary difficulty with solar power and indeed with its cousin wind power has been one of efficiency. There is
more than enough energy hitting the earth in the form of solar radiation to meet power needs of our species.
Estimates indicate that there is four times as much wind energy available for our use as the species uses every year.
Solar power is even more dramatic, the sun showers the planet with more energy every day than we use in a year.
So the difficulty has never been the availability of sun and wind, they are readily available.

The difficulty with solar panels has always been the efficiency of power transfer. You see, it is one thing to say that
the sun showers us with several terawatts of power every day, and another thing to put that power to work for us. The
majority of modern human power use is electric. This means we need to convert the radiant solar energy to usable
electric current. This presents a technological hurdle for us, because for most of our history, our electric conversion
has been turbine based. Solar panels however, don¶t utilize a turbine at all. Instead sunlight striking silicon crystals
creates electric potential. If those crystals are backed by an array, this potential can be harnessed to create a current.




This transfer of sunlight to electric potential has always been an inefficient one. The scientist who first harnessed this
effect, which he dubbed photovoltaic, was only able to elicit a 1% return on the energy he put into his solar cell. He
created his cell by coating a semiconductor (selenium) with gold. Through a century of refinement, we have
painstakingly reached solar panels that can produce a return of more than 30% of the power they receive.

One of the reasons behind this is that any given semiconductor only responds to a certain wavelength of light. This
means a single-substance solar panel will only ever be able to convert a portion of the sunlight it receives to
electricity; no matter how well it converts that portion. That, in essence is where we stand today.

Manufacturing advances in the past decade have finally lowered the cost of solar panels to the point that a 30%
efficiency panel can pay for the cost of production and installation over the first six years of its life. This means that
solar power is finally economically viable, since panels are designed to run for at least 10 years before they start to
break down.

    

Currently, solar panels are a viable alternative energy source, both environmentally and economically.ë ! 
 allow you to put up solar panels, and feed excess power back into the power grid. This isn¶t an act of charity
on your part. Utilities are required to pay you for the power you put into the system. Another advantage of staying
connected to the grid is that you won¶t have to have an elaborate in-home battery system to store energy for nights
and cloudy days. You can draw on grid power during those times, and the power will be subtracted from the amount
you put into the system.

There are also off-grid and mobile solar power options. If a home is equipped with a "  system and
sufficient solar panels, it can cut ties completely with the power grid and become self sufficient.  
"  can make a useful augmentation to solar panels in an off grid system, since cloudy days accompany storm
fronts, which create wind. This ensures that one of your power sources is always functioning at optimal capacity,
keeping your power on. Going off-grid is an especially appealing notion for #$ owners, because it greatly enhances
the range and camping ability of their RVs.

Local and federal rebate incentives make solar power more affordable than ever today. The   
  Initiative has been a role model for other states to follow in setting up incentive programs to promote solar
power. Other states with high solar potential and rebates or incentives include Arizona and Florida. For more
information on the viability of solar power in your area, as well as information on local incentive programs, please visit
our free solar evaluation page.

       

The future of solar power revolves around thin film technology. Thin films have been used for centuries; one of the
first applications of them was the use of a thin layer of silver behind glass to create a mirror. Today the most common
use of thin films is in computing, where they can be used to create extremely densely packed circuits.
For solar panels however, thin films allow manufacturers to use much less silicon than a crystal array requires to
create a solar panel. The resulting panel is much less efficient than comparablecrystalline silicon solar cells (which
are the traditional style); but it is much less expensive as well. It also has applications that the traditional solar cell
cannot match. Imagine having the exterior glass of an office tower tinted, not with a mere darkening agent, but with a
microfilm layer of solar panels that turned the entire exterior of the building into a clean electricity generating device.
The glass would still be reflective from the outside and translucent from inside, it would just generate electricity as
well. The same concept could be used for residential building exteriors, and even vehicle paints.

Another interesting application of the thin film technique is a multi-junction photovoltaic cell. This version of a solar
panel utilizes multiple thin films of different substances to harness a much wider range of the sun¶s light to create
electricity. In fact, a recent test cited a conversion rate of over 60% utilizing this technology. Thus thin film could both
open up new markets in solar power and increase the efficiency of solar panels significantly. To learn more please
visit our Solar Learning Center.