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Solar Energy 101: Introduction to Solar Energy

Solar is one of the most talked-about alternative energy sources in the world today.
•Enough energy comes from the sun in one hour to power the global population for a year.
• Sunlight is a totally renewable resource, unlike oil, coal and natural gas.

We know that our sun is actually a very large and hot star emitting lots of power in its rays. How do we go about harnessing that power effectively, so it can help generate electricity, which is an important part of modern life?

The sun’s rays transmit both heat and light. The heat is used in thermal systems to produce hot water and hot air for commercial and residential heating use, as well as power generation with steam or sterling engines.

The light is used in photovoltaic systems to convert light to electricity and this is one of the main areas where our solar industry is concentrating its efforts today.

The solar industry, like many others, has its own unique vocabulary.

For example:
Photo (light) + voltaic (produces voltage) = photovoltaic (PV) system.

See " How solar cells convert this sunlight into truly renewable energy " (PDF 385KB)

How solar modules work

Module diagram

Solar modules consist of layers of materials like a sandwich. A solar cell is made from a thin wafer of silicon, similar to a computer chip, but bigger.

The light carries energy into the cell and the cell and the wires connected to the cell convert the light energy into another kind of energy – electric current. No electricity is stored in the cell. If you want to understand more about photons and electrons and how this all works view this quick video tutorial (26 MB video).

Solar cells are interconnected in a matrix to form a module. One solar cell produces electricity at a voltage of approximately 0.5 volt at room temperature, so 36 cells connected together in a module produce enough voltage to charge a 12-volt battery. However, the solar cell heats up while exposed to the sun, reducing the operating voltage to about 14-15 volts. A 12-volt battery needs about 14 volts to charge it, so the 36-cell module is the standard used in charging 12-volt batteries. The cells are connected and placed between a tough glass front and a back surface within a frame and sealed, as shown in the illustration.

Helping solar cells and modules work better

Dow Corning is developing encapsulant technology to protect the cells in the module. The encapsulant keeps out moisture and contaminants, which could cause the module to fail, so it is a critical part of the manufacturing process. Dow Corning® brand products are also used to seal the frame, adhere the junction box on the back of the panel and potting agents are used to fill the junction box. The potting agents protect the electrical components in the junction box.

Solar modules in use

Once assembled, the panel is ready for installation. Additional equipment is needed for off-grid systems, including a battery storage system. Off-grid systems are stand-alone units that do not feed electricity back to a power company.

An example of an on-grid system is the solar panels installed by Dow Corning and Hemlock Semiconductor Group at the Dow Diamond baseball park in Midland, Michigan, USA, where the excess power generated is sold back to Consumers Energy, the local utility company. The panels generate electricity year-round.

Solar array at Dow Diamond

Dow Corning and Hemlock Semiconductor Group both play significant roles in the solar energy industry. Dow Corning provides materials and services for the entire solar industry, from the basic building blocks of silicon feedstock for ingots and wafers production to solar module frame assembly and sealing materials. Hemlock Semiconductor is a world leader in the production of polycrystalline silicon, the cornerstone material used to produce solar cells that harvest energy from sunlight.

Learn how solar energy works in your home in Solar Energy 102.


How photovoltaics work

See how sunlight is converted into electricity  (26 MB video).

Solar Energy 102

Learn how solar energy works in your home.

Stay informed

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