Under the Umbrella of Alternative Energy: A Guide to Photovoltaics

Written and compiled by .

Photovoltaics involves the conversion of solar radiation into electricity by using semiconductors that produce a photovoltaic effect. Photovoltaic energy employs solar panels made of photovoltaic materials, such as silicons, cadmium and copper. Photovoltaic technology has grown over recent years due to the ever-increasing demand for renewable energy sources. In fact, there are about 40,000 solar photovoltaics in existence with over 100 countries using the renewable energy technology. Photovoltaic installations are ground or roof mounted or built into the walls of a building. Due to the increase in demand and manufacturing sophistication, the overall costs of photovoltaics has decreased since the original solar cells were manufactured. Net metering and feed-in tariffs have allowed photovoltaics installations in many different countries.

How Photovoltaics Work

Photovoltaics employs the direct conversion of a light source into electricity. Photovoltaic materials produce a phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect, a process which allows the materials to absorb light photons and subsequently release electrons. An electrical current occurs as a result of the free electrons being captured, which essentially produces an electrical current. The photoelectric effect was introduced by French physicist, Edmund Bequerel in 1839. Consequently, Albert Einstein elaborated on the concept by describing the nature of light and the photoelectric effect, which won him the Nobel Prize in physics. The basic photovoltaic cells, or solar cells, are composed of the semiconductor materials used in the microelectronics industry. As light strikes the solar cell, electrons separate from the atoms while trapped in the semiconductor material. The electrical conductors are positively and negatively attached, which forms an electrical circuit and essentially allows for the conversion of the captured electrons to produce an electrical current.

How Photovoltaics Can Help Save Money and the Environment

Photovoltaics or solar cells can convert natural energy provided from the sun into a renewable and sustainable source of electricity. Solar-powered energy provides a clean and environment-friendly resource that does not depend on finite fossil fuels for dispensable power. Financially, solar panel PV systems can help the average home owner save money on electrical expenses, depending on the individual’s location, climate, incentives, metering laws imposed by the State, system rating, array subtype, electricity costs in the individual’s locality, and the amount of energy used on a daily basis. For instance, a PV system owner in California will save more than a resident in Missouri. Some software programs offer a free conversion rate to acquire some estimation based on the aforementioned factors. This will help those who need an estimate without the necessity of memorizing mathematical formulas to find the overall cost ratio. Some argue that solar energy does not offer cost effective measures against conventional fossil fuels; the major benefits may not stem from financial benefits, but rather from a clean, green Earth.

The Future of Photovoltaic Power

Photovoltaic power has seen an increase around the globe as one of the predominant sustainable, renewable energy sources offered on the market. In fact, 2008 was the first year to see a doubling in conversion from conventional fossil fuel technology than prior years. At the end of 2008, an estimated 15,000 megawatts of energy powered the globe with about 8 million American homes caught up in the mix. The Topaz Solar Farm, a new photovoltaic power plant, covers close to ten square miles in central California and began generating about 550 megawatts of electricity in 2011. Photovoltaic industry sources expect that the overall size of the industry will expand at around $70 billion by the start of 2013. Some property owners have signed “power purchase agreements,” which allow them to install free photovoltaic panels in exchange to buy electricity from the owner at a very low cost several decades down the road. Other innovations in the photovoltaic industry include “thin film” PV panels that