When South Africans look into renewable energy for their home or business, they often question the functionality of such a system. Let’s take a quick, simple look at how a basic solar power system in South Africa works to provide you with electricity.
How do solar panels create electricity?
One cell within a solar panel creates a tiny bit of electricity—not nearly enough to even power a mini globe. That’s why solar panels consist of MANY of these cells. Collectively, they can convert and store enough energy to run an entire household.
When these cells are exposed to sunlight, they convert photons into electrons. Because the photons from the sunlight are continually piercing the cells, they ‘push’ these electrons on an ongoing basis. It’s this process that creates kinetic energy which can then be stored into a battery—or directly power an appliance or light.
This explanation describes conventional solar panels—those that are most common among homeowners. But many don’t realise that there is much research and development taking place in solar power systems. This is resulting in different renewable energy technologies, and it won’t be long before these become available to the public. Inevitably, this will eventually mean better harvesting of solar energy, and at a lower cost. The industry is ever-evolving; which is cause for much excitement for us South Africans who need these systems.
Components that work well together
As we’ve seen, a solar panel is an ingenious device that converts sunlight into electricity. But no matter how many solar panels you have, these would not be able to power your home unless the sun was shining. So what about rainy days? What about night time?
Fortunately, solar panels work together with another clever device—one we are all familiar with: a battery! When you possess a solar power system, your home is actually being run directly from a stored collection of power contained in such a battery. These batteries are approximately the size of a car battery, but some are up to four times larger. The system must work this way or else it will not work at all. There will be times when the sun is at its brightest, and you will not need electricity. There will also be times when there is no sun at all, and probably then when you will need electricity the most.
An inverter is another device that forms part of a properly-working solar system. The energy must be converted from kinetic energy into storable electricity. The inverter makes this happen, acting as a go-between for the solar panels and the battery.
So as you can see, a solar power system cannot effectively work without an accompanying battery. The two go hand in hand to provide your home with round-the-clock energy regardless of the weather or time of day. Many of these systems also provide a ‘fallback’ switch. This simply means that if your power runs out (sometimes because of several consecutive days of rain), your home falls back onto Eskom’s grid power.
Strategic positioning of solar panels
In order for solar panels to be most effective, they must be placed in intelligent locations. Your home’s roof is likely to be the one place that receives the most amount of sun exposure. Remember, those photons need to keep penetrating the cells in order to push the electrons continually. Therefore, the longer your solar panels remain exposed to the sun, the more energy they will create.
The direction these panels face is also of importance. Skilled installers are clued up on where to place solar panels so that maximum exposure is attained. If you want a quicker and larger return on investment, your panels must be installed properly and intelligently.
This isn’t just true for home owners. Companies have specialised needs when it comes to solar system installation. Factories often find themselves in peculiar locations. Working out where and how the sun will shine the most (all year round), will determine how much power that company manages to store. Farms are also specialized. There are often too many solar panels needed to power a large farm to fit them onto a roof. Installers must be creative about where so many panels should be placed in order to maximise efficiency.
Is solar power efficient?
So, is solar power an efficient alternative to grid energy? From what we’ve seen, ABSOLUTELY! Multiple cells fit into one solar panel and it only takes a few solar panels to power a medium size house. We also learnt that solar panels are only effective if coupled with good quality storage devices. Finally, we noticed that if a solar system is installed properly, it will yield better results and provide a higher return on investment for the user. Overall, we can say that if a solar system is bought from and installed by an expert South African company, it is a highly effective way to run your home or business.