For centuries, humans have harnessed the power of the sun. Initially, solar power was used to produce thermal energy like heat or fire. And then in the late 1800s scientists discovered that light from the sun produces electricity when exposed to specific elements like selenium or silicon.
With more research and testing, the world’s first silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell was created in 1954 by scientists Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson. This PV cell was the first that could truly power an electrical device for several hours at a time. With this foundation, solar panel technology was created and became more efficient with every passing year. This leads us to answer today’s question: How are solar panels made?
What’s in a solar panel?
To understand how a solar panel is made, we must first recognize the key components of this renewable energy source. A solar panel is made up of several distinct layers:
- An aluminum frame
- A sheet of tempered glass
- A layer of EVA film (aka highly transparent plastic)
- Solar cells
- Another layer of EVA film
- A back sheet
- A junction box
Each layer plays an important role in protecting the solar cells from moisture, dirt, impact, and high wind speeds. This specific combination of layers allows the solar cells to capture light and produce energy at the highest efficiency for the longest period of time. Over the last 60 years, this layering technique has been perfected, and today, solar panels can produce electricity efficiently for over 25 years.
Phases of manufacturing solar panels:
Now that we understand the distinct layers of a solar panel, it’s easier to get a picture of how everything comes together when it is made. To simplify the complex process of building a solar panel, we’ll break down the process into 6 phases.
Phase 1: Sand to Silicon
The creation of a solar panel revolves around its most essential component: the solar cells. A solar cell is a layer of silicon cells. Thus, the first step of manufacturing a solar panel is finding raw material to create a thin sheet of silicon cells. Solar panel manufacturers use quartz sand to extract the highest purity silicon. By exposing the sand to very high temperatures in an arc furnace, the impurities are burned away, and large silicon rocks are left exposed.
Phase 2: Silicon Rocks to Cylindrical Ingots
To break these large silicon rocks into large, cylindrical ingots (blocks), the factory turns once again to heat. Manufacturers melt down the silicon rocks in a cylindrical furnace, aligning silicon atoms in the desired structure and orientation. Boron is also added to the melted silicon to give a positive electrical polarity.
Phase 3: Ingots to Disks
With the silicon in the form of a cylinder, workers use wire saws to cut the cylinders into disks or wafers. These paper-thin wafers are very shiny, causing them to reflect light. In order to negate reflection and maximize sunlight absorption, each wafer is soaked in an anti-reflective coating before the next phase.
Phase 4: Wafer to Solar Cell
After being coated and treated, these wafers are now ready to become solar cells. Metal conductors are added in a grid-like matrix on the surface of each wafer, which ensures the conversion of solar energy into electricity. These new solar cells are placed in an oven-like chamber where phosphorus is diffused in a thin layer over the solar cells. The phosphor layer allows the surface of each cell to carry a negative electrical orientation, making a positive negative junction between surface and contents of the cell.
Phase 5: Solar Cell to Solar Panel
The solar cells are linked by soldering a metal connector between each cell, forming 48, 60, or 72 cell panels. The panels then receive their protective layering of a back sheet, EVA film, tempered glass, and an aluminum frame. The junction box is added to connect the panel to the module, allowing electricity to flow from the panel to the home.
Phase 6: Factory to Home
Before solar panels are shipped out to major distributors and homes, each solar panel is tested to ensure that its solar cells perform as expected. With the test passed, solar panels are cleaned, inspected once more, and then shipped out to homeowners across the globe.
For a more in-depth explanation and visuals, watch the video linked below:
What Is the Lifespan of Solar Panels?
As we mentioned before, solar panels can efficiently produce electricity for 25 years, but many remain operational for far longer. Some of the first modern solar panels have been in operation for nearly 60 years! What’s more, because of how durable solar panels are built, they lose efficiency extremely slowly. Some experts estimate that solar panels still operate at 80% efficiency around years 20-25. (For a more in-depth discussion of how long you can expect your panels to last, check out our recent post How Long Will My Solar Panels Last?)
After a few decades of running, though, anyone owning a solar panel system may need to reassess their power needs. If it turns out that old panels aren’t meeting those needs, they may need replacing or new panels could be installed next to them.
When a solar panel gets replaced, most of its parts can be recycled. These panels go to a recycling facility where the panels are pulled apart and broken down with acids to separate out their crystalline silicon, which is the semiconducting material in most photovoltaic cells. Acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate any precious minerals.
Nearly 75% of the material that gets separated out in this recycling process is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products for the future. Other materials like copper and silver can be recycled as well.
Solar energy is a source of power that requires little space (a rooftop) and little maintenance (thanks to its durable design). It produces no greenhouse gases and when solar panels run their course, the scrap can be recycled. All around, solar is a green option at an important juncture in regards to energy threats like climate change.
Why Install a Solar System?
Apart from the reasons listed above, solar panels provide a great value to anyone installing them. Once a solar panel is installed at a customer’s home, they can look forward to decades of useful energy that offset their power consumption—saving them money and, in the case of overproduction, even selling it back to the grid for a profit depending on how the public utility accounts for that surplus in their state.
Owning a solar system is another investment into a home that can be an appealing source of equity when selling a home. While solar installations are on the rise, it is still a novel savings to any buyer looking to purchase.
Blue Raven’s Solar Panels
To ensure the highest quality options, Blue Raven Solar works with third-party providers, which allows us to put the most efficient solar panels on our customers’ homes. It is our mission to make homeowners’ lives better, by increasing their reliance on clean and abundant renewable energy.
We also work with customers to help them own their solar panels instead of rent them—since that provides the most savings to them. Power Purchase Agreements and leasing agreements are methods that get solar panels installed, but they don’t help the customer in the long-run. Savings from renting solar equipement don’t make up for the cost of having a different company deciding power prices.
When a customer owns their solar system, they own their savings. This doesn’t just involve the monthly electricity bill either. Owning solar panels also opens up the savings gained from federal and state tax incentives. Renting solar panels means that those benefits go to the company that installed them rather than the customer using the solar system.
At Blue Raven Solar, we want our customers to trust our transparency and information. Our customers learn exactly how much they’ll save and how big their solar system needs to be to maximize those savings.
What’s more, if solar power turns out to not save them anything after they request an estimate with us, we’ll make sure our customers know that. There are a lot of factors that come into play when installing solar panels and our customers deserve the most efficient solar panel system to suit their power needs.
By providing a world-class customer experience through a reliable sales process and a speedy, high-quality installation, Blue Raven Solar wants to be a partner for our customers that they can trust. Tune in next week to learn how solar panels turn light into electricity.