How Does Solar Power Work?


Quick Answer

According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, solar power can involve generating current directly from the action of ultraviolet radiation on treated silicon using the sun's heat to boil water and drive an electric turbine with steam. Small-scale solar power installations, such as those on a private residence, usually use photovoltaic cells. Industrial-scale solar power plants tend to use solar thermal technology to create power.

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Full Answer

In a photovoltaic cell, treated silicon wafers produce a flow of electrons whenever struck by light. If large numbers of cells are wired up together, the resulting solar panel can create an electric current suitable to power lights or household appliances. These installations are totally dependent on the sun and cease producing electricity when it goes down.

Concentrated solar thermal technology uses mirrors to focus the sun's energy on water pipes arranged throughout a solar field or on a central tower containing molten salt or other high-temperature materials. In a distributed solar field, the water flowing through the pipes becomes superheated, producing steam that drives an electric turbine. In a molten salt generation system, the collective heat from the sun superheats the material, allowing it to boil water in nearby pipes to produce steam-powered electricity. The material can retain heat for hours, allowing electricity generation even at night.

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