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How does PV technology work?

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

Photons strike and ionize semiconductor material on the solar panel, causing outer electrons to break free of their atomic bonds. Due to the semiconductor structure, the electrons are forced in one direction creating a flow of electrical current.

Solar cells are not 100% efficient in Diagram of a typical crystalline silicon solar cell. Solar cells are not 100% efficient in part because some of the light spectrum is reflected, some is too weak to create electricity (infrared) and some (ultraviolet) creates heat energy instead of electricity.

Diagram of a typical crystalline silicon solar cell. To make this type of cell, wafers of high-purity silicon are “doped” with various impurities and fused together. The resulting structure creates a pathway for electrical current within and between the solar cells.

Other Types of Photovoltaic Technology

In addition to crystalline silicon (c-Si), there are two other main types of PV technology:

  • Thin-film PV is a fast-growing but small part of the commercial solar market. Many thin-film firms are start-ups developing experimental technologies. They are generally less efficient – but often cheaper – than c-Si modules.

  • In the United States, concentrating PV arrays are found primarily in the desert Southwest. They use lenses and mirrors to reflect concentrated solar energy onto high-efficiency cells. They require direct sunlight and tracking systems to be most effective.

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