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Explain Like I’m 5: Solar Panels (ELI5)

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ELI5 diagram explaining how solar panels work, including sunlight, silicon, photons, electrons, the P-Layer, and the N-Layer.

As any teacher knows, kids need concepts explained in easy-to-understand ways without complex vocabulary words and confusing terms. At Palmetto, we believe adults would benefit from this approach as well. After all, solar can be confusing! In our “Explain Like I’m 5” (ELI5) series, we’ll examine key elements of the clean energy revolution to help everyone understand the concepts, kids and adults alike.

What Are Solar Panels?

A solar panel is a device that turns sunshine into electricity. Each solar panel is actually made from a bunch of smaller parts called solar cells, and those solar cells are covered by a strong piece of glass, and held together with a metal frame.

Behind the solar cells, wiring helps collect the electricity that’s made by the solar panel and move it into your home. People use that electricity for lights, watching TV, charging gadgets, playing music, cooking food, and more.

What Are Solar Panels Made Of?

Most solar panels are made of silicon, a material that likes sunlight a lot. You might be surprised to learn that silicon is actually the second most common material on Earth, behind oxygen.

In solar cells, the silicon material is made of silicon crystals in a grid, and this grid layout makes it easier for the solar panel to turn solar energy into electricity.

Scientists experimented for many years to figure out what turns sunlight into the most energy. In fact, they’re still looking for new materials that might make even more energy from sunlight in the future.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

Each solar panel has two layers: a “P Side” with a positive electric charge and an “N Side” with a negative electric charge.

An electric charge is when very small bits of material (called “subatomic particles”) either want to be near each other, or move away from each other. Positively charged material wants to move away from other positively charged material, and negatively charged material wants to move away from other negatively charged material.

Material doesn’t like to be charged, so positively charged material wants to move towards negatively charged material, and combine together to become neutral, which means it no longer has a charge.

The P Side of a solar panel is designed to let energy flow to the N Side, but there is a small gap between the two layers that prevents energy from flowing from the N Side to the P Side.

Sunlight is made of photons, which are little packets of light and energy. When photons hit something, they can give their energy to that thing.

When sunlight hits the solar panel, the energy from the photons excites electrons in the silicon on the N Side. The N Side cannot hold those excited electrons (which have a negative charge) so they move to the P Side, and that movement creates electricity. Scientists call this the “photovoltaic effect”.

Why Do We Need Solar Panels?

We need solar panels because it’s important to be able to make electricity without hurting the earth. People call energy made this way “clean energy” because it doesn’t make the planet dirty when it’s used.

Solar panels are a good way to make clean energy because the sun sends a lot of sunshine to the planet every single day, even when it’s cloudy. In fact, trillions and trillions of photons leave the sun every second! The more solar panels we use, the less we need dirty energy that we have to dig out of the ground.

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