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Photovoltaic Electricity: The Science Behind Solar Projects

Working with solar energy is the core of what we do at Clearloop; it’s the foundation that we use to support our goals of cleaning up the dirty electricity grid and bringing clean power to American communities that need it most. As corny as it sounds, we’re using the power of the sun to create a brighter future for our country by ensuring that all of the environmental, health, and economic benefits of these solar projects shine across our country equally. But how do we actually make electricity from the sun? We’re taking this opportunity to get a little more technical and dive into the science behind photovoltaic solar panels. 

Harnessing the power of the sun to create a brighter future

We help companies reclaim their carbon footprint by funding the construction and installation of new solar projects that use photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity. According to NASA, this process occurs because the panels’ “materials exhibit a property known as the photoelectric effect that causes them to absorb photons of light and release electrons. When these free electrons are captured, an electric current results that can be used as electricity.” Solar panels harness the light produced by the sun and make use of the energy that is produced by the interaction of that light with its semiconductor material.

The science behind PV solar power

As is common for most modern PV solar panels, the key semiconductor material in our panels is silicon ⁠— a fact which gives some context to the name of our solar friends and partners at Silicon Ranch. Silicon is largely used because it provides “a combination of high efficiency, low cost, and long lifetime” solar potential, as well as being one of the most abundant materials on earth. Having a long lifetime is especially important because it determines how long a solar panel can operate efficiently and produce a continuously significant amount of power. That is why the solar projects we’re building today will be helping to pump clean power into communities, like in Jackson, TN, for at least the next 40 years. 

Clearloop team
Clearloop team learning about solar PV with Tennessee Solar Association President, Jason Carney

The interaction between the elements on each side of the silicon wafer in the solar panels helps create electricity. As NASA explains, “for solar cells, a thin [silicon] wafer is specially treated to form an electric field, positive on one side and negative on the other. When light energy strikes the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms in the semiconductor material. If electrical conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides, forming an electrical circuit, the electrons can be captured in the form of [a direct] electric current [or DC].” Therefore, the more light that hits a PV solar panel, the more electricity it can produce.

Common misconceptions about solar electricity production 

We know what happens to us when we get a little bit of sun: all of us get warm and some of us get freckles. What happens when sunlight hits a photovoltaic solar panel to create electricity is all about the light and not at all about the heat. That means that even on chilly days when the sun is shining brightly, solar PV panels are working hard to create electricity. 

Solar PV Technology has been around for decades, now it’s time to accelerate investment and adoption

Recently, our team had a chance to visit with the President of the nonprofit Tennessee Solar Energy Association and Founder and CEO of Energy Electives, Jason Carney, who not only helped us understand the science behind solar PV, but also shared how he’s helping to accelerate its adoption to the places that need it most. As a pioneer in the Tennessee solar industry, Jason is dedicated to educating high school students, corporations, and government agencies alike in why and how solar energy works to support sunnier days ahead. In fact, one of his most impactful projects is an ongoing program with Whites Creek High School that included the education of students and installation of solar panels on the school campus by those students. 

The opportunity ahead 

Because the sun is an abundant and free resource, all it takes for a solar panel to create electricity is some sunshine. This also means that the electricity produced by converting photons into current doesn’t produce any of the harmful byproducts like carbon and other greenhouse gases that result from burning fossil fuels. We’re thrilled to get to use this technology that was pioneered so many decades ago and to see how other innovators are ensuring that more of us around the country get to use it. We hope that this explanation of photovoltaics was helpful, so that next time you see a solar panel out in the wild, you’ll be able to understand and share how it works. 

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Want to learn more about how to reclaim your company’s carbon footprint and expand access to clean energy with Clearloop? Drop us a note at hello@clearloop.us or contact us here.

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