Explore the intricate steps involved in harnessing the power of the sun, from photovoltaic cells to the generation of clean and sustainable electricity.

Solar Energy 101

Did you know? The amount of solar energy striking our planet in just one hour is enough to supply the entire planet’s energy consumption for a year. Just imagine how amazing it would be if all our power needs were provided by the sun. What a dream!

Solar energy refers to the radiant energy emitted by the sun, encompassing both its visible light and invisible heat. There are two primary methods to capture the sun's power. That is through the use of photovoltaic (PV) panels and solar thermal energy.

Considered one of the marvels of modern technology, photovoltaic panels, commonly called solar panels, utilize the photovoltaic effect where the panels absorb sunlight and knock electrons loose. These freed electrons flow creating an electric current in the form of a direct current (DC) which is then converted to usable alternating current (AC) electricity through an inverter.

As for solar thermal energy, this approach concentrates sunlight to heat a fluid, often molten salt or oil. The heated fluid then drives turbines, generating electricity in a similar way to conventional power plants. Think of giant mirrors focusing the sun's rays like a magnifying glass, creating intense heat that boils liquid, turning that thermal energy into electricity.


While the concept of harnessing solar energy dates back to ancient civilizations, the specific discovery of the technology we use today to convert sunlight into electricity has a more recent timeline:

1839: The foundation is laid by French physicist Edmond Becquerel as he discovers the photovoltaic effect. This phenomenon demonstrates that light can generate electricity when it strikes certain materials.

1873: Willoughby Smith, a brilliant English electric engineer, identifies selenium as a particularly efficient material for the photovoltaic effect, paving the way for further development.

1883: Charles Fritts creates the first practical solar cell, using selenium coated with a thin layer of gold. However, its efficiency was only around 1%.

1905: Albert Einstein publishes his groundbreaking paper on the photoelectric effect, explaining the theoretical basis behind the phenomenon. This earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

1954: Bell Laboratories scientists Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson developed the first silicon photovoltaic cell with significantly higher efficiency (around 4%). This marks a significant milestone in practical solar power technology.

As you can see, while the initial discovery of the photovoltaic effect dates back to 1839, the development of practical solar cells using silicon, the foundation of modern solar technology, occurred in 1954.

How Solar Energy Powers Up Our Homes


Now that you understand what is solar energy and its history, the next best thing to dive into is how exactly is solar energy converted into electricity.

Have you ever looked at a solar panel and wondered: how does that seemingly simple device harness the sun's power to light up our homes? Well, the answer lies in a fascinating blend of physics, chemistry, and engineering, known as photovoltaics. With growing concerns about the use of fossil fuels, understanding this technology is key to embracing a sustainable future. Let’s take a look at the steps below and find out how solar energy is transformed into consumable electricity.

Step 1: Photons Take the Centerstage
Imagine sunlight streaming down the Earth, packed with tiny energy packets called photons. These photons strike the silicon wafer - the core of a solar cell - a semiconductor material like the chips in your computer.

Step 2: Electrons Get Excited
Each photon carries enough energy to bump into an electron in the silicon, shaking it loose from its usual spot. Think of it like giving a billiard ball enough force to break free from the pack.

Step 3: The Electric Field Steps In
Here's the genius part - the silicon wafer is cleverly crafted with an electric field. This acts like an invisible river, pushing the excited electrons in a specific direction.

Step 4: Electrons Flow, Current is Born
As the excited electrons move through the electric field, they create a flow of charged particles, just like water flowing down a river. This flow of electrons is what constitutes electricity!

Step 5: Capturing the Current
Embedded within the silicon wafer are thin metal gridlines. These act like tiny nets, capturing the flowing electrons and channeling their energy.

Step 6: From DC to AC
The captured electrons create a direct current (DC), similar to what powers batteries. However, most homes and appliances use alternating current (AC). An essential component called an inverter performs the magic trick of converting DC to AC, making the electricity usable for your needs.

Step 7: Powering Your Home
The converted AC electricity then flows through cables, eventually reaching your home's electrical system. Voilà! The sun's energy, captured and transformed, now powers your lights, appliances, and devices.

Understanding this process unveils the incredible potential of solar power. It's a clean, sustainable technology that harnesses nature's bounty to power our lives, one tiny photon at a time. As research and development advance, solar energy holds the promise of a brighter, more sustainable future for everyone.


The US solar industry is booming! In 2023, solar accounted for 48% of all new electricity generation capacity, surpassing natural gas for the first time. This translates to more homes and businesses adopting solar, increasing its overall share of the energy mix. In addition to this, the cost of solar panels has decreased to almost 80% over the past decade making them increasingly affordable for homeowners and businesses. This affordability fuels further adoption. Moreover, this industry is getting more government support than ever. Aside from policies like tax credits incentivizing investment in solar technology, the Biden administration has set ambitious goals for solar deployment, aiming for 40% of US electricity to come from solar by 2035. Lastly, the solar industry has become a significant job creator employing over 300,000 people in the US. This number is expected to grow as the industry expands.


Solar energy adoption is experiencing dynamic change not only in the US but across the rest of the globe with China leading the pack, followed by Japan, Germany, India, Vietnam, and other emerging economies. Solar capacity additions worldwide continue to outpace other energy sources. Just like in the US, the continuous declining installation prices and technological advancements are making solar increasingly attractive for diverse markets. Furthermore, research and development efforts are yielding more efficient panels, integrated storage solutions, and novel applications beyond traditional electricity generation. Overall, solar energy presents a significant opportunity for global decarbonization and sustainable energy development.


There is no denying the power the solar energy holds now, more than ever. What started as a simple approach to using the sun’s power has now transformed into a revolutionary technology of solar photovoltaics. Though initially slow to gain traction, this ingenious technology has transformed the energy landscape by offering a clean and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. The vision of powering our future with the sun's limitless energy is now tangible, thanks to the ingenuity of silicon PV panels. Understanding the process of how solar energy is converted into electricity will encourage more people to take advantage of the sun's power as a clean, sustainable, and renewable source of energy.


* We want to give credit where credit is due. Professional writer, Ann Matthew, contributed research and content to this blog titled: How is Solar Energy Converted into Electricity Thank you, Ann, for your contributions!