Solar

What Are Solar Panels Made Of And How Do They Work?

What Are Solar Panels Made Of?

The basic components of solar panels is pretty simple: glass, silicon, copper wiring, and aluminum (for the frame).

But solar panels and their manufacturing processes are actually much more complex than that. And there’s much more than what meets the eye.

Solar panels are made up of a bunch of solar cells, and solar cells are made of silicon wafers (obviously cut from silicon). Silicon is a hard, crystalline solid that can be created in a lab, but it is also found in nature. 

Silicon has conductive properties which allows it to absorb and convert the sun’s energy into usable electricity.

Solar cells, also called photovoltaic cells, are mass produced and lazer-cut into thin pieces at solar manufacturing plants. Manufacturers create silicon cells with durability, strength, and efficiency in mind. Efficiency utilizes sunlight hours better and the durability and strength help solar panels weather most elements while on a roof.

There are a few differences in the chemicals and manufacturing processes between the three main commercial solar panels. We will explore this below.


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What Is The Best Material To Make A Solar Panel? 

There are three main types of residential solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

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Monocrystalline silicon (also called single-crystalline silicon) solar cells are recognizable by their uniform look and color, which indicates their high-purity silicon

Monocrystalline solar panels’ cost is lowered and their efficiency is optimized by cutting four sides out of cylindrical ingots in order to make the silicon wafers. This process is what gives the solar panels their characteristic look.

Advantages:

  • These solar panels have the highest efficiency rates (15-20%, up to 4xs more than thin-film). Monocrystalline panels are more efficient because it is made up of a single silicon crystal, whereas poly cells are made of fragments of silicon. Monocrystalline cells  give more room for electrons to move around and get higher efficiency rates
  • Space-efficient–they require less space to produce the same amount of energy than other panels
  • Long life-spans (up to 25 years warranty)
  • Perform better in low-light and warmer weather than similarly rated polycrystalline panels

Disadvantages:

  • More expensive than other solar panels
  • Needs micro-inverters instead of central string inverters specifically so that one solar panel’s energy reduction (from shade, snow, etc) won’t reduce the whole solar system’s energy output
  • More waste is created in their manufacturing process (Czochralski process). Much of the silicon that is cut away from the ingots ends up thrown away

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

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Polycrystalline silicon (also called multi-crystalline silicon) solar cells were first introduced to the market in 1981. These solar panels are manufactured with raw silicon. The raw silicon is then melted down, poured into a square mold, cooled, and then cut into square wafers.

Advantages:

  • The production of poly silicon is less expensive and simpler to make than monocrystalline solar panels.
  • Creates less waste than monocrystalline panels since it doesn’t use the Czochralski process (cutting away silicon from the ingots)

Disadvantages:

  • Lower heat tolerance than monocrystalline panels–they perform less well in very hot temperatures. But since the effect is small, it shouldn’t be a big concern for homeowners
  • Lower efficiency (13-16%) because of its lower silicon purity
  • Less space efficient; it takes more panels to produce the same energy as monocrystalline panels
  • Considered less aesthetically pleasing than thin-film or monocrystalline panels

Thin-Film Solar Panels

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Thin-film solar cells (TFSC) are created through a process of depositing one or many layers of photovoltaic material onto a substrate. There are a few different types of thin-film solar cells based on which photovoltaic material is put on the substrate. 

These photovoltaic materials are listed below:

  • Amorphous silicon (a-Si)
  • Cadmium telluride (CdTe)
  • Copper indium gallium selenide (CIS/CIGS)
  • Organic photovoltaic cells (OPC)

Only a few of these types of thin-film solar panels are available commercially.

Advantages:

  • Very easy to mass produce
  • Usually less expensive to manufacture than either monocrystalline or polycrystalline; therefore, they’re cheaper for homeowners
  • Aesthetically pleasing
  • More flexible which opens up different opportunities for their use in the future
  • High temperatures and shade doesn’t impact their performance as much as it can for the other solar panels
  • The market for thin-film photovoltaic is growing (between 2002-2007 it grew at an annual rate of 60%)
  • If space isn’t an issue they can make a lot of sense to use

Disadvantages:

  • Efficiency rates are only between 7-13% but operate at about 9% depending on the technology. However, their efficiency is expected to increase to between 10-16% in the future
  • They need a lot of space; because of their low efficiency rates, they take up a lot of room, so are more suited to solar farms for now
  • Though they’re cheaper to manufacture, since you need so many of the solar panels, the supporting equipment ends up costing more since you need more of it
  • Degrades faster than mono or poly crystalline and have shorter warranties because of it
  • Only thin-film solar panels based on cadmium telluride, amorphous silicon, and copper indium gallium selenide are the only ones currently available commercially

What Chemical Are In Solar Panels?

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Chemicals can be a triggering word in society today. But chemicals are in everything and they’re naturally occurring. They’re not all bad.

Renewable energy, like solar and wind, are clean energy sources. They’re clean because the production of energy doesn’t create greenhouse gasses/carbon emissions like coal or oil.

However, there are some chemicals used to create materials–like PV solar panels and silicon cells–in order to produce this clean energy.  

Here’s what you should know about solar panel chemicals, and how they occur in the manufacturing process:

  • Hydrochloric Acid, Copper, Trichlorosilane Gas, And Silicon Waste: Much like many of the electronics you own, photovoltaic solar panels require silicon for semiconductor use. Silicon is mined with sand/quartz and then processed at a high temperature. This process burns off oxygen and leaves behind 99.6% pure metallurgical grade silicon. Since this percentage still isn’t high enough for it to be used as a semiconductor, this silicon goes through a second process.
    In this second process, copper and hydrochloric acid is mixed with the silicon to produce trichlorosilane gas. This is reduced with hydrogen to make silane gas. The silane gas gets heated and turns into molten silicon. This process creates silicon crystals that are then reformed and used to create photovoltaic cells and micro Chips.
    The most dangerous part of this process is in the manufacturing. Silicon dust is harmful and silane gas is explosive. Fortunately, solar manufacturers are trained well in handling these chemicals.
  • Cadmium: Cadmium is used in creating the cadmium telluride in thin-film technology (helps with converting sunlight into electricity). It naturally occurs as a metal and is produced from smelting copper, lead ore, or zinc. Cadmium is a carcinogen, but the risk of being exposed to it outside the manufacturing process is very low
    Only half of the cadmium makes it into being in thin-film. The rest of the cadmium is used in other parts of the cadmium telluride production. However, there is a risk of cadmium becoming a pollutant if it is improperly disposed of.
    The use of cadmium is closely monitored and done by solar manufacturers in the creation of PV solar panels. 
  • Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Cells: This product is what helps the solar panels convert sunlight into electricity. CdTe cells are widely used in thin-molecule solar panels.
  • Nitrogen Trifluoride And Sulfur Hexafluoride: Some types of solar panel production will release nitrogen trifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride–both greenhouse gasses–into the atmosphere.
    All efforts are made to minimize these effects, but inevitably some leak out. 
  • Copper Indium Selenide And Copper Indium Gallium (di)selenide: Both chemicals have been used in PV solar panels before. They mostly present a danger to people working on the panels through their production, as they can be toxic at low levels. There have been efforts to move away from using these chemicals in current solar production

The chemicals currently in photovoltaic solar manufacturing are critical for the clean energy they produce.  But they can be risky for people and the environment if they are damaged or when they’re disposed of. 

However, these metals do not leak into the soil in normal conditions or accidents such as storm damage. They also do not have to be mined and cause less environmental damage than mining for coal-based electricity. 

Solar panel production is not yet perfectly clean, but it’s several times safer and cleaner than current popular methods of energy like coal and oil.

Are these processes and their chemicals perfect? No. Are they going to kill you? No. Do they produce equipment that makes life better or more efficient? Yes. 

In fact, you come into contact with these chemicals daily through many of your electronics.

There is plenty of research being done to eventually phase these chemicals out with further study and funding. 

But in the meantime, solar panels are as safe as can be and are much better than fossil fuel alternatives which expose us to much more dangerous pollutants and much higher levels


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How Do Solar Panels Work? 

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Getting your energy from solar panels is more viable and more affordable than ever before.

And, as solar is becoming mainstream, many people want to know how solar panels work, and if they’ll really make a difference for their home and savings.

How Solar Panels Generate Electricity And Work For Your Home:

  • Solar panels are a composite of many solar cells made from silicon. The silicon acts as a semiconductor and generates electricity. When sunlight shines on the silicon, electrons are spurred into motion which creates the flow of electric current. This process is called the photovoltaic effect
  • Solar panels absorb the sun’s energy (via photovoltaic cells) and generate direct current (DC) energy
  • Anti-reflective coating on the solar panels increases the sunlight absorption and helps silicon pv cells to access maximum sunlight exposure.
  • Glass casing on solar panels helps protect the silicon pv cells and makes them more durable. Under the glass, the panel has a layer of insulation and a back sheet that protects it against heat dissipation and humidity. Insulation is important because of temperature increases. If the temperature gets higher, it makes the efficiency of the panel lower, which lowers the panel’s performance. 
  • Solar inverter technology converts the DC electricity from your panels into alternating current (AC) electricity, which is used by most appliances and homes
  • AC electricity moves through the home electrical panel and distributes as is needed
  • Any excess energy your panels produce will be fed back into the grid
  • You are compensated for this energy via energy credits, which you will use when your panels have days they don’t produce enough energy to meet your needs

The Basic Parts Of Solar Arrays (A Group Of Solar Panels)

  • Solar Panel Mounts: The solar panel mount is in charge of handling the weight of the panels. Most roof solar panel systems are made from extruded aluminum rails. For every 100 watts of panels, one mounting bracket is used for support. If your solar system is on the ground, you’ll want sturdier and larger mounting bases. Most often poured concrete is used for ground solar panels along with ballasted footing, foundation mount, or poles. 
  • Charge Controller: The charge controller provides stability to your solar energy. It stabilizes the system so it doesn’t get overloaded. 
  • Inverters: Inverters convert the energy produced from sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity. Since most homes use alternating current (AC) electricity, the inverter also converts the electricity from DC to AC to homes can use the energy. Inverters come in a range of sizes, amp output, and watt hours. So when you ask how do solar panels work with your solar company, they can help you select the right inverter for your needs. 
  • Utility meter: If you have electricity you’re currently tied to the utility grid. And most likely, your solar panels will be connected to the grid. Your utility company uses a utility meter to measure and supply your home with energy. When the solar panels are tied in, they take the excess in exchange for solar credits that apply to your energy bill when your solar panels can’t produce enough energy for you (like during stormy weeks or winter storms). This way you always know you have power but still have the $0 and minimal energy bills. 

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How To Maximize Your Solar Savings

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Before you make the final commitment to solar energy for your home, consider some of these points to help you get the best deal and solar company possible in your area.

  • Research And Review Solar Companies In Your Area: Like with any big investment, you should spend time researching your options. U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recommends that you compare as many of your solar options possible, so you avoid inflated prices that may come from some solar installers. Check out their customer reviews and make sure they have all qualifications and certifications to install your solar panels. 
  • Use Resources To Find Vetted Solar Professionals: It’s a good idea to use pro-quote finders, like Home Professionals, who have access to vetted solar installer networks. These companies will filter only reputable solar companies to you, effectively streamlining the process so you can get free quotes in your area from reliable companies. Homeowners who gather 3 or more quotes save thousands on their solar installation. 
  • Multiple Quotes: Homeowners who shop around and gather multiple solar quotes save 10% more on their solar installation
  • Compare Equipment Options: As you compare solar companies, both large and small, consider how many solar equipment options they’re offering. Solar panel equipment can have a large impact on how your system produces electricity. Certain panels will have higher efficiency ratings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll save the most with them.
  • Budget Carefully: Budget out your energy bill with your solar system. Consider how much you’ll be saving with your solar energy system and how long it will take to pay off your solar panels. Once you get your free quotes, compare those quotes to your budget. Take everything together to make the best decision for your situation. 

How To Get More Free Solar Information Today

Though solar energy may not be 100% perfect, you can feel good knowing it’s much cleaner and safer than coal/oil energy. As further studies improve photovoltaic panels, eventually the whole process could become completely safe and eco-friendly.

Home Professionals offers a free-and-no-commitment solar professional and solar quote finder to help you find the best solar pros and deals in your area today. 

These quotes include information about the solar panels the company recommends. But since most solar companies include a variety of equipment, you’ll have options to change according to your preferences. 

Use the free quote finder below and find out how much you’ll save in money and carbon footprint reduction if you switch to solar today.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Solar:

Q: What is the ITC?

A: The Federal Government in the year 2019 will pay for 30% of your solar cost. That's like the Federal Government paying 30% of your electric bill for the next 30 years.

Q: Is there a solar program that is 100% free?

A: No. There are programs without any enrollment, install, or maintenance costs. However, you still have to pay the lower power bill that comes accompanied with your electricity use.

Q: What energy efficient program offers the most savings?

A: Solar offers massive savings to the homeowner. Especially as electric rates tend to rise year after year, and homeowners are using more power as they are adding in home automation, tvs, speakers, etc.

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