Photovoltaic cells can generate electricity when sunlight falls on them. Advances in technology have made it possible for newer generation PV cells to achieve this even with indirect or diffused sunlight.
Also known as solar cells, they are an integral part of the photovoltaic systems used for residential, commercial, and industrial installations.
Going solar is one of the kindest acts you can do towards helping preserve the environment and the planet for future generations. By doing this, you can also avail of the slew of financial benefits offered by federal, state, and local authorities, besides the discounts offered by solar companies.
Before jumping into the solar bandwagon, you may want to weigh the pros and cons of photovoltaic cells. This article will help you navigate through the scientific jargon and terminologies and explain the same to you in simple language.
So, let’s get started by understanding how a solar panel turns sunlight into electricity.
What is a PV cell? How does it work?
The basic principle behind a solar panel is the photovoltaic effect.
Sunlight is composed of energy-packed photons. When it falls on a semiconductor material like platinum or silicon, the energy from the photons is transferred to the electrons in the atoms of the material. The energized electrons become agitated and overactive and escape the bond with the atom. This results in a flow of electrons or electric current.
A photovoltaic cell is an arrangement of semiconductors that help convert light energy into electricity. It is made up of two types of semiconductors – p-type and n-type. A p-type semiconductor is positively charged and has one less electron or “hole” in its atoms. An n-type semiconductor is negatively charged and has one extra electron in its atoms.
When p-type and n-type semiconductors are placed close together, a p-n junction or depletion zone is formed. When sunlight falls on the n-type semiconductor material, the energy from the photons is transferred to the loose electrons in it. The energized electrons jump across the p-n junction and fill up the “holes” on the p-type semiconductor.
If the escaping electrons are directed back to the n-type layer using an external wire, this process will continue endlessly. The flow of electrons constitutes electricity.
What are the types of PV cells?
The solar cells are made from semiconductor materials like silicon crystals. There are basically three types of PV cells available in the market based on the type of silicon crystals used. Monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film.
While the monocrystalline cell is made from single crystalline silicon, a polycrystalline solar panel is made by melting and pouring silicone into square molds. Thin-film cells are made by placing several thin layers of photovoltaic material on top of each other.
There are various types of thin-film cells based on the PV materials used for the layers. The most notable among them are amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide.
Solar cells vary in appearance, efficiencies, the material used, and pricing. The type of PV cell used on various occasions depends on the requirement and funds available.
Solar cells: Pros and cons
Solar power is promoted as the next best alternative to fossil fuels and usually, you get to hear only about its benefits. Even the best of things come with at least some drawbacks.
Let’s understand the pluses and minuses of PV cells.
|Advantages of Solar Cells||Disadvantages of Solar Cells|
|It helps you to tap into renewable energy.||It is expensive.|
|It is affordable.||It is location-specific.|
|It offers you electricity without harming the environment.||It is seasonal.|
|It lasts for a long time.||It is hard to install on uneven roofs.|
|It helps you fight climate change.||-|
|It raises property value.||-|
Advantages of Solar Cells
Let’s begin with the positives.
1. It helps you to tap into renewable energy.
We are looking for alternative energy sources because fossil fuel deposits are finite. Sunlight is abundant in almost all regions across the world. PV cells help us capture the energy in the sunlight and convert it into electricity or heat energy as needed.
We must switch to a renewable source for our energy needs. As our dependence and the electricity demand is constantly going up, the only way to keep up the supply is by switching to an inexhaustible energy source like the sunlight.
2. It is affordable.
Whether for use at home or generating electricity on a commercial scale, solar power is affordable in the long run. PV cells do not have moving parts and hence there is no chance for wear and tear. Its upkeep is simple. You just need to keep the surface of the solar panel clean.
When you go solar, your monthly savings will be substantial even if you are using it to cover your energy needs partially. The more solar panels you install and the more sunlight available at your location, the more savings you can generate from it. If you can manage to produce excess electricity, there is also the possibility of exporting the excess to the grid and earning money for it.
Related: Are Solar Panels Worth It?
3. It offers you electricity without harming the environment.
One of the most harmful consequences of using electricity generated using fossil fuels is the resultant pollution. Air pollution is the worst side-effect of burning fossil fuels. At different stages of extraction, transportation, and use, fossil fuels also contribute considerably to land, water, and noise pollution.
This is a point on which solar power scores high even among other renewable energy sources. The working of a solar panel doesn’t contribute in any way to any form of pollution. However, there are always some levels of pollution involved in the procurement of materials, production, transport, and installation of photovoltaic systems, though this is inconsequential in comparison with that of fossil fuels.
4. It lasts for a long time.
The typical lifespan of a photovoltaic cell is 25-30 years. With little to no expense on maintenance, the PV cells will continue to produce electricity for a long time.
The longevity and durability of solar cells have prompted manufacturers to offer 20-25 year warranties for solar panels and photovoltaic systems. When buying photovoltaic systems, it is a huge relief to know that it is backed by long-term warranties.
Related: How Long Do Solar Panels Last?
5. It helps you fight climate change.
Climate change is no longer a warning issued by scientists. It is a reality, affecting millions of people in all nooks and corners of the world. Floods, droughts, hurricanes, cyclones, and changing weather patterns are creating destruction and chaos in our lives.
The only way to combat climate change is to move away from its contributing factors. Burning fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to climate change. Switching to solar power is a step in the right direction.
Related: Top 10 Causes of Global Warming
6. It raises property value.
A solar energy installation is considered a valuable addition to any property, be it residential or commercial. Besides saving money on utility bills, it gives you a chance to do your bit for the environment.
As it involves heavy initial investment and effort, a property with a pre-installed solar system is always high in demand in the property market. As a result, it commands a higher price and sells much faster.
Related: Selling a House with Solar Panels
Disadvantages of Solar Cells
A photovoltaic cell is one of the most useful innovations in recent times that benefit human beings as well as the environment. This doesn’t mean that it is all perfect in the world of solar energy.
PV cells also come saddled with some negatives, even though they are minor. Let’s take a look at the cons of solar cells.
1. It is expensive.
There is no denying this fact. The cost of solar cells, solar panels, or entire PV systems is too high for the common man to purchase without a second thought. EnergySage estimates the cost of a 10 kW solar energy system at around $28,000.
As this was becoming a hurdle for the public, federal, state, and local governments have come up with financial incentives to reduce the burden of the steep initial investment. The federal tax credit is a lucrative offer that individuals and businesses can avail of to offset the high cost of solar panels.
Related: Why are Solar Panels So Expensive?
2. It is location-specific.
It is no secret that PV cells generate the maximum energy when they are exposed to sunlight throughout the day. Whether your property can tap into the sun’s energy depends on how much sunlight the property is receiving and the convenience of installing solar panels.
The direction and tilt of the roof are vital. If there are trees too close to the building casting shadows on the roof, solar panels won’t be at their optimal best.
However, not optimal doesn’t mean your property is incapable of generating solar energy. The newer generations of PV cells, together with supporting technologies are making the solar system work even in shades and cloudy conditions.
3. It is seasonal.
Many parts of the world do not get to see the sun during winter and rainy days. No sunlight means no power is generated by PV cells.
By using higher efficiency monocrystalline solar cells and installing solar trackers, it is possible to make the best of the situation. The power generation will be lower but it will continue to generate electricity.
4. It is hard to install on uneven roofs.
The vital point for PV systems is the direction and tilt of the roof. This can be adjusted to some extent using the right mounts. However, it is not always possible to get the most out of a solar system, if the rooftop is at different levels. If your area receives too much snow, having a flat roof may not be ideal.
The photovoltaic cells are excellent tools for producing clean and green energy. It gives you a chance to meet your own energy needs using free and abundant sunlight. Moreover, it doesn’t come with any adverse environmental consequences like greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.