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Basics of Solar Panels: Using Sunlight to Generate Free Electricity

Updated on September 28, 2017
stephhicks68 profile image

Stephanie is always looking for ways to lighten her carbon footprint. She enjoys sharing eco-friendly tips and ideas.

How do Solar Panels Generate Electricity?

Powering your life with energy from the sun is clean, efficient and less expensive over time than coal-powered electricity. Today, you can find solar panels in many places - on homes, businesses, and even traffic signals. Perhaps you have noticed solar panels in your own community. Tilted toward the afternoon sun, solar panels are designed and engineered to capture the most ultraviolet light to convert to electricity. Don't you think its time to go solar?

Where I live, I see solar panels frequently. Since I started getting more interested in solar energy, saving money and reducing my carbon footprint, I seem to see panels everywhere (like the phenomenon when you buy a new car and you notice the same make and model much more frequently). Here in Bend, Oregon, I have seen solar panels on gates, traffic signals, schools, homes and even the top of a few small businesses.

In a previous hub on Solar Power, I explained the basic photovoltaic technology used in creating solar panels. Even if you are not ready to totally convert your home or business to solar power, you can employ solar panels to help reduce your electric bill and/or provide convenient power where "plugging in" may not be practical.

Don't think you can afford to install solar panels on your home or business? Think again! The federal government and many states provide energy tax credits to encourage alternative energy usage. Wind, solar and other renewable energy tax credits have been extended in the United States. For the most up-to-date information, check out

Solar Panels in Hawaii
Solar Panels in Hawaii | Source
Solar panels provide power to open and close a gate
Solar panels provide power to open and close a gate | Source
The sun can provide much more than just beautiful sunset colors
The sun can provide much more than just beautiful sunset colors | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Solar panel operated traffic sign
Solar panel operated traffic sign
Solar panel operated traffic sign | Source

Q&A About Solar Panels

Q: Isn't it very expensive to install solar panels?

A: Not necessarily! Research shows that you can install a home-based solar panel system for as little as $8,500. Many states offer incentives to install and use solar panels, as well. And don't forget the tax credits either!

Q: How long will it take to make back my investment in energy savings?

A: That depends. Among many factors include the size of the solar panel system, tax rebates and other incentives. Generally, estimates range between 10-15 years. That may improve, however, with added efficiency and grid-payback systems implemented by energy companies. If you're in it for more than just money (i.e. slowing global warming and reducing your carbon footprint), your investment payback is immediate!

Q: Doesn't the process of making solar panels result in pollution?

A: Of course there is some environmental impact as a result of producing solar panels, as there is with any other type of manufactured good. However, the environmental costs of production are far outweighed by the environmental benefits provided by reduced fossil fuel consumption. Even the smallest solar panel system can cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50 trees! Just remember that 100% of the electricity produced by solar panels is emission free!

Q: Solar power has been around for as long as mankind - why has it taken so long for interest in solar panels?

A: While its true that people have been using the power of the sun for centuries, modern solar panels have only been around for about 50 years. The progression of the technology to create efficient panels is continuing to the present date. Less than 3 percent of our nation's electricity is currently generated by solar power. However, solar power energy generation is growing at a rate of 20-30 percent each year. With added tax incentives, concerns about global warming and a strong desire to become energy independent, more and more people are becoming interested - and willing to invest - in solar panels.

Q: What about excess energy created by PV cells on solar panels?

A: Excess energy must be stored in batteries (if you are "off-grid"), or is released to the power grid. Some power companies credit customers based on the amount of energy put into the grid. This helps defray costs of the wattage that is used overnight or during less efficient solar energy periods.

Bypass your HOA to install Solar Panels

Solar panels on a local business in Bend, Oregon
Solar panels on a local business in Bend, Oregon | Source
Sunlight is abundant - let's use it to power through solar panels
Sunlight is abundant - let's use it to power through solar panels | Source

The Million Solar Roofs Initiative

President Barack Obama pledged heavy support for alternative energy programs and has set some lofty goals to be accomplished in the next four years. Years before the historic election, however, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative (MSRI) was established in 1997. The primary goal of the program, administered by the Department of Energy, was to achieve the installation of 1,000,000 new solar panel systems in the country by the year 2010. What would this accomplish? With installation of a million solar panel systems, we would be able to save the equivalent of the emissions produced by more than 800,000 cars each year!

The conclusions of the success of the Million Solar Roofs Initiative were issued in 2006:

"When the program concluded, the federal government's investment of $16 million had leveraged roughly $7.1 million in cash. It also leveraged in-kind resources and incentive programs throughout the country. This synergy has contributed to the following outcomes:

  • Installation of the equivalent of more than 377,000 solar water heating, photovoltaics (PV), and solar pool heating systems
  • Installation of 200 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected PV capacity and 200 MW of solar water heating capacity
  • Dramatic growth in PV technology acceptance, from 8% of solar installations in 1997 to 41% in 2005
  • Economic and environmental benefits that resulted from grid-connected PV installed between 1997 and 2005 including :
  • Health benefit savings of $90 million
  • Decreased CO2 emissions of 3.3 million tons
  • Cumulative GNP increase of $1.6 to $2.6 billion, depending on installed cost (range of $8-10 per watt)

After the Million Solar Roofs Initiative concluded, the program shifted to the Solar America Initiative. The aim of that program is to "achieve cost-competitiveness for solar technologies across all market sectors by 2015." It is hoped that by the year 2015, PV technologies will provide the equivalent of electricity to power 1.25 million homes, avoid 7 million metric tons each year of greenhouse gas emissions and also provide new jobs for more than 10,000 people!

Cheap Solar Power - for you!

Go Solar: Save Money

Use of solar panels to harness energy from the sun is a smart investment for your home.

However, even if you are not sure you are ready for the home improvement project, you can start out by getting solar powered gadgets, like backpacks fitted with solar panels, solar cell phone chargers and other similar small consumer goods.

Once you see the reliability offered by the use of solar power, as opposed to grid-based electricity, you will probably become a convert!

Time for a Poll

Would you Install Solar Panels on your Home?

See results

© 2008 Stephanie Hicks


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    • radharenu profile image

      radharenu 5 months ago from India

      Excellent Hub. Very lucid explanation of what is solar panel and how solar panels work. I am sure many people would be encouraged to go for solar on reading such great articles. Thanks for sharing.

      For more information, you may visit this link also:

    • louromano profile image

      louromano 6 years ago

      someday i want to own one...i like the idea...Nice hub.

    • profile image

      Randy Deresti 6 years ago

      The field is really growing and the technology is amazing I have some really cool designs on my page but your page is great I'll link to you in my site.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you so much Peggy! So glad that you found this solar panel/solar power hub. I am a big fan of renewable energy too. Best, Steph

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This just makes so much sense! Solar energy should be utilized as much as possible. Great hub! Up, useful and interesting votes.

    • JON EWALL profile image

      JON EWALL 6 years ago from usa


      Check out this Series of articles tracking the stimulus money for solar and wind

      . By Russ Choma

      Blown Away: Tracking stimulus grants for renewable energy

      Ps Check the TV schedule for Sept. 7, 2011 and Sept. 8, 2011 President Obama addresses the Congress


      RENEWABLE ENERGY using A SOLAR PANEL SYSTEM has your link in my hub ,check it out

      . Have a great day, I enjoyed your hub.

    • profile image

      Aprilette 6 years ago

      Man is quite smart to invent something as wonderful as solar panels. Thomas Edison was a brilliant person when he suggested that we tap the sun's solar energy and use it to our advantage. This will not only benefit mankind but using solar energy will be greatly beneficial to Mother Earth as well.

      For more info

    • profile image

      solarpathlights 6 years ago

      Good hubs ,thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      Sam Brettell 6 years ago

      Solar Panels are the future!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 6 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Glenn - thank you very much. Solar panel kits are so easy to find and install. You can get them for as little or as much electricity you want to generate (i.e. for an RV or a boat, or just a garage, or your entire home). Thanks for the vote! Best, Steph

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 6 years ago from Long Island, NY

      It's awesome how many solar kits are available already for people to experiment with. I like the series of Q&A you included. You did a great job putting all this informative info together. I voted up!

    • profile image

      John Kimball 6 years ago

      I am Jorge from Sun Electronics. We are a wholesale and also retail solar panel, systems, inverters, and all sort of renewable energy products, providing a wide range of high quality products at the world's lowest prices.

      I've shared this article with all my employees because it is quite very interesting and to see how many people and companies are involved in green energy makes us very proud to be working in this industry.

    • profile image

      brientini Ugo 7 years ago

      Dear Ms/Mr

      I'm Ugo, i'm wholesaler of solar mounting system base in China.

      i'm living currently in Hangzhou close to Shanghai.

      i have at my disposal various kind of solar rack for land or roof

      and the screw of fondation intented to fix those structure in field.

      Feel free to contact me for any information at this email address:

      If you're interesting in it, i will send you an itemized invoice.




      Skype: ugo.brientini

      tel: 008615158089352

      trade manager: 115952658

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you Apostle Jack - I am quite passionate about solar, with two blogs devoted entirely to the topic. Glad you found the article interesting! Cheers, Steph

    • Apostle Jack profile image

      Apostle Jack 7 years ago from Atlanta Ga

      I think solar is a wonderful idea.I would like to see more solar in the future.You put this together well it is my pleasure to say thanks.

    • profile image

      dhansen 7 years ago

      Great information! Thanks for addressing the impact of the creation of the panels - I'm glad to know the long-term benefit still outweighs the cost. Any advice about using solar panels in a cloudy climate like Seattle? And what about selecting a qualified installer? I found a directory (, but could use some advice about picking the right company to install my solar panels.

    • profile image

      Solar Panels 7 years ago

      Very useful hub, always search good manufacturers for solar products.

    • profile image

      helene.bliss 7 years ago

      Fantastic hub about solar panels. I, myself is a fan of solar power and I am really happy that more and more people are understanding the importance of it as well as the benefits it can give.

    • profile image

      solar china 7 years ago

      nice post.our blog also have many solar info.

    • profile image 7 years ago

      Great hub! It's great that governments are now giving rebates and incentives. I hope they can encourage more people to go solar. I am a fan of green energy and of course I also want to save money. Good thing there are affordable panels that I can buy.

    • profile image

      Joshua - Solar Power Energy 7 years ago

      Al Gore should have encourage Obama to go green. Nice hub steph, it looks very interesting and really informative. Thanks for this! I learned a lot

    • profile image

      Jerry 7 years ago

      Dear Sir,

      I am Jerry from GPT Solar. GPT Solar is manufacturer of photovoltaic products, providing a wide range of high quality photovoltaic products with competitive price.

      Our product range includes Solar Cell, Solar Panel (Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline and CIS), Controller, Inverter; Solar LED Marker, Solar Landscaping LED String, and Solar Light etc. For more information, you are welcome to visit our website at: .

      Should any of these items be of interest to you, please feel free to contact me. I will be happy to give you a quotation upon receipt of your detailed requirements.

      I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon.

      Have a nice day!

      Best regards,

      Jerry Deng

      Jerry Deng


      TEL: 0086-592-2561661

      FAX: 0086-592-2561663


      WEBSITE: Http://

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Let's hope so! Solar has a lot of advantages over other renewable energy, and especially coal and gas

    • profile image

      Solar Panels Installer 7 years ago

      Barack Obama is President now, hopefully the whole world will go a little greener now.

    • profile image

      dodok 7 years ago

      I have been using a small scale solar panels on my house. but I have a little problem in my accu. accu very often damaged or dropped. so I often replace the batteries. want to save even so lavishly.

    • profile image

      Primoz 8 years ago

      Excelent article! The other obvious advantage of using homemade solar panels is that you will be greatly contributing to protecting the environment, because by not using electricity produced by oil-powered power stations, you will be reducing the consumption of fossil fuels and hence the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Yes, subarau55, I think we'll see more and more solar panels and solar power investment. Even today on 60 minutes they were talking about leasing solar panels as a great option to help people minimize up front costs (that will be another hub...) :)

    • subaru555 profile image

      subaru555 8 years ago

      Very interesting article it is nice to see more people jumping on the green energy bandwagon. It is a very good investment although it may cost a little bit of money to start up it is relentless in the amount of energy it can provide throughout its lifetime! Truly a great investment and great article.

    • profile image

      solar panels 8 years ago

      I am sure more and more people would use solar panels.

    • profile image

      Daled 8 years ago

      Solar Panel is really fascinating!!

    • anant surya profile image

      anant surya 8 years ago from India

      really informative.I want to get into the field of energy from renewable resources and as India is still to catch up on the latest technology i would really appreciate any help or advice.

    • Info Provider profile image

      Info Provider 8 years ago from St. Louis Mo.

      Build Your Solar Panels Learn Step By Step

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Yes, the PV market is about to explode, in my opinion. 5 years from now, you'll be seeing solar panels everywhere!

    • foren83 profile image

      foren83 8 years ago from Phoenix

      In my experience, I've found a lot of people that search for solar battery chargers for little appliances and electronics....I think that in the next future thanks to the tax credits we could expect the see increasng the market share of photovoltaic panels.

    • profile image

      Solar Panels 9 years ago

      This solar panel looks a bit like a tenis table :)

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi earnestshub- thank you! I understand that solar shingles are slightly more durable than solar panels. They can offer protection for your roof, as ordinary shingles. However, some say that solar roof shingles are more difficult to set up because each shingle needs to be individually wired. Still, they can be a great investment for your home, can increase its value, and you can get some excellent tax rebates for going solar. I think the benefits outweigh any potential costs! :)

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Another fab hub. Steph, I am wondering if solar shingles are more durable than panels?

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Roberta! Thank you so much. There is so much to learn about solar panels and sometimes the information can be too much to digest. It was even helpful for me to break it down a bit here. Take care! Steph

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      A wonderfully clear explanation of solar panels and how they work--fabulous links too which are well worth taking a look it . Thanks for this Steph

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Golden Apple -thank you so much for the compliment! I am so excited about the future of solar panels. Glad to see you are on board. :)

    • Golden Apple profile image

      Golden Apple 9 years ago

      Hii stephhick68 thanks for giving a wonderful Eco friendly information about the solar panels. Future i am planning to have it!!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Compu, yes! I 100% agree! In today's economy, your best bet is to literally invest in the future: solar panels seem to be one of the best hopes for personal consumers to save on energy costs (wind is promising too, but difficult to implement on an individual basis). I'll be with you at the January sales.... :) Steph

    • compu-smart profile image

      Compu-Smart 9 years ago from London UK

      To have resources that are free and unharmful to the environment is priceless, and what a great reason to have to have solar powered energy or any other natural energy powered thingmajigs especially in today's credit crunch climate!:)

      I am going to wait for the January sales to purchase something anything!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi artfuldodger, yes, there are always new breakthroughs with solar panels and the technology. Seems like every week, I read something new and exciting. I'm watching news on tidal wave power too.

    • artfuldodger profile image

      artfuldodger 9 years ago from Earth

      dope hub. very nice. seems like every day theres a new breakthrough with solar technology (ie efficiency, energy capture etc) tidal wave power sounds promising too

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Glory - thank you for giving us more information about solar panels! They are becoming even more efficient and affordable for people to use.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you betherickson! Going green has become a passion of mine, and solar panels are so easy to use and even have installed. Thanks for participting in the poll, too. Steph

    • profile image

      GLORY 9 years ago

      You have provided good information about the use of solar energy.People have started investing in solar panels .

    • betherickson profile image

      betherickson 9 years ago from Minnesota

      I enjoyed reading your hub. I voted for solar energy. I'm an environmental kind of person and I can get use to it. Thanks for this great info!

    • Sara Algoe profile image

      Sara Algoe 9 years ago from Phoenix, Ariz

      Great Hub

      I have always been a big fan of alternative environment friendly energy sources but I been having some problem with solar panels. Solar panels are great when used as hybrid with other sources and they are even better when used in lawns and gardens with single lamps.

      Problem is when you go heavy duty. First time charges are very high and even though they come with guarantee, the grantee only covers solar panel not the rest of equipment. Then the biggest problem is maintenance solar panel require lots of maintenance. Maintenance after rain, after dust storms, after hailstorm, after every thing nature has to offer.

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 9 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      Thanks, I will!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Mariane, I think within the next 5 years or so, many people wil have solar panels. Just like it was 10-15 years ago and not many people had cell phones, and now they are everywhere! :)

    • mariane14 profile image

      mariane14 9 years ago from USA

      someday i want to own one...i like the idea...

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Constant Walker - that is a great question. I think that if you want to power your unit with solar power, you would have to talk to the landlord about installing solar panels. It would likely fall within the realm of things that you are not permitted to do to the building or unit without permission. You could offer to pay the cost of installation and removal. Of course, you'd have to have a unit that is properly situated so that you could capture the best sunlight, as well. You know, I think this question is the potential topic of another hub or blog post - I am going to do more research and see what I can find. LIke so many other technological advancements, it seems like questions like this come up before all the "what ifs" are worked out. If you have a cool landlord (and you've done some good homework on how much the solar panels will save you - and possibly him or her with respect to hallways, entry and other common areas - in energy costs), you may very well be successful in your endeavor. Keep me posted definitely!

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 9 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      Great subject, Steph. I can't wait til we get to the point where everyone is using at least one solar panel, and when, as they become more common place, the initial cost goes down.

      Do you know how it would work for a renter of, say, an apartment (not interested in the costs and headaches of ownership) if he was interested in setting up solar panels?

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      @hubby7 - there are many players in the solar panel/solar power field. Here in Bend, Oregon, PV Powered is a leading company. Obama visited and had a tour of the facility and then gave a speech from PV Powered on energy independence in May 2008. I am keeping a close watch on them.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      @solarshingles - you are the master of solar panels and solar energy! Thank you for the comment. Of course, I agree that solar power panels are the way to energy independence. I think the next few years are going to be very interesting!

    • hubby7 profile image

      hubby7 9 years ago from Chicago

      I enjoyed reading your hub on solar energy. Question: Do you know who are the big players in the field?


    • solarshingles profile image

      solarshingles 9 years ago from london

      Truly beautiful hub about solar photovoltaic panels and wider promotion of renewable power sources. Stephanie, you are a true master of 'hub creation' and this one is a very real one and useful. There is no batter way for a household than solar power panels to get truly energy independent.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi wannabwestern, Arizona is a great place to install solar panels. I live in Central Oregon, the high desert, which is also said to have 300 sunny days a year. There are many homes that do have solar panels and solar roof shingles installed here. Wouldn't it be great to go 100% solar? Thanks for your helpful comment.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 9 years ago from The Land of Tractors

      This is a nice, well-researched hub! Here in sunny Arizona we have the potential to become the solar capital of the world. I am eagerly awaiting the day when I can get my home sold so we can move forward with a new home purchase and go 100% solar! The statistic I read shows we have sunshine here over 300 days out of the year. With the potential to have the utility companies buy back electricity, the use and conservation of solar power has the potential to almost pay for itself. And with rising costs of gas and electricity, alternative forms of power are actually MORE cost effective than the other options with the rebates you mentioned.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Bob - I agree! I think the cost issue is a big one for individuals and businesses. If government is willing to invest in a green future, more solar panels will be installed and less greenhouse gases emitted. It would be great to see the U.S. and Canada work together on this issue.

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 9 years ago from New Brunswick

      The incentives plan is an idea i like to see here in Canada. It could encourage more people to go solar.