Solar Panels are “Elven Magic” I tell you!

4 Oct

It’s been hectic around here with my little boy being sick, so I’m gonna reach into the mailbag.

Alice asks:

Dear Ronin,

As we start working our way toward a rural life lived “wrapped in steel” we’re looking at ways to “fill in the gaps”.

Water is easy, we drill a well.

Septic is easy, we dig a hole and put a septic tank in it.

But power… well, that’s another mystery to us.

We aren’t in a windy area, so I don’t think that a wind turbine will work for us.

We don’t have a nearby stream or river, so building a small hydro unit isn’t a solution either.

That leaves solar energy.

I understand hot a solar hot water heater works. I mean, it’s kind of a no-brainer…

But this whole solar (photovoltaic) thing has us scratching our heads.

I’m reading forums, but I’m getting confused more than I’m getting informed.

Can you help me? Please?


Alice of the Information Underpowered Tribe.


Dear Alice,

It is wise of you to sit at the feet of the Sage… investing interest in information… blah blah blah… 🙂

Yeah, right. Seriously, okay… here goes;

Solar power isn’t really complicated, once you boil it down to it’s lowest common denominator.

Photovoltaic panels collect photons from the sun’s energy and then harness them to power up your MP3 player or your refrigerator (among many other things).

Silicon  is mounted beneath non-reflective glass plates to produce photovoltaic (PV) panels that collect photons from the sun.

Those photons are then converted (by elven magic – not to be confused with Santa’s elves, who are far too busy…) into DC electrical power.

Wait… that’s not it.

Okay, it’s time for the “Solar Science taught by Idiots” lesson of the day;

Solar (photovoltaic panels) are based on silicon.

This is Silicon;

Silicon has 4 electrons in it’s outer shell. (Note that this shell in no way resembles the outer shell of an M&M, which is one of my personal favorites). This silicon shell is greedy, however and can hold up to 8 electrons.

This is Silicone;

Do not confuse them… or her. It’s just tragedy waiting to happen. 😉

Oh just stop it. You read the blog. If you didn’t see this coming, well… you just don’t give me enough credit…  So get over it! 🙂

A science geek will tell you that:

“When Silicon shares these four electrons with other silicon atoms and their four shell electrons, the capacity of eight is then filled. When these atoms combine with each other in this manner, the produced atoms develop a strong, stable bond not unlike the bond created by a strong nuclear family as long as you don’t invite crazy Aunt Bertha to the family picnics. You know how SHE can be…)

This produced structure is known as pure, crystalline silicon.”

You don’t stop there, however. You don’t want “Pure” silicon, because it’s too hoidy-toidy to play nice with others. So, you actually “contaminate” that stuffy silicon with something else, like phosphorus (containing 5, count em 5, electrons) to create a negative charge.

Because we all know that when you mingle something “pure” with something “else”, there’s always negativity. Right?

The result is that the silicon atom swipes four of the phosphorus electrons (remember that silicon can hold 8 electrons) and kicks one away.

That rejected electron becomes a “free carrier” – carrying off electric current.

I’m oversimplifying this, but you get the drift. Silicon wafers are created by combining silicon with other elements like boron or phosphorus to create electricity.

These silicon combinations and their differing charges are used to make assemblies that we know as “solar (photovoltaic) panels”.

As photons come down from the sunlight and strike the silicon, it shakes everything up more than a hip hop concert. The free carrier – electron that was hanging onto the silicon/phosphorous combination is now forced to the outer ring.

From there, it gets sucked up to the outer ring of the silicon/boron combination.

After that, it’s all about the elves. Um… wait… this “elf” stuff is gonna get me in trouble.

You’re basically manipulating silicon and creating positive and negative charges in those atoms.

When a silicon wafer (called a semi-conductor) is manufactured, it’s designed to form an electric field that is positive on one side and negative on the other.

When sunlight hits the wafer, the photons knock the electrons “loose” from the silicon atoms in the semi-conductor. The electrical conductors attached to the wafer’s positive  and negative sides (which form a simple circuit) then capture those electrons and carry them off, as electrical energy.

Assemblies  built from these silicon wafers form “Photovoltaic panels” capable of capturing and harnessing that sunlight and turning it into power.

This, dear Alice…  is how electricity is created.

Actually, I like the “elf” story better, because it’s easier on my brain. This physics stuff gives me a headache.

But at any rate that DC power (be it magic or not) then flows into a box called an inverter – which then transforms it into basic AC (alternating current) electrical power.

That AC power is then distributed thru your home by electrical conduit (usually Romex).

Now, I’m gonna go sit in the sun and drink a cold soda while my head stops hurting. My three brain cells are all upset now. Thanks a lot! 🙂

Seriously, if you really want to understand solar power and how it works. or more importantly, how to do it yourself, I recommend that you go visit Steve Spence over at GreenTrust.Org.

That’s guy’s forgotten more about Solar energy that I ever knew.

I don’t call him “Mr. Science” for no reason.

Of course, be probably refers to me as “that ISBU imbecile”, but… “sticks and stones…”

It’s “Unpaid Endorsement” time:

Steve has a great Solar Power Primer for sale on his website. If you want the real skinny on DIY solar power production from a REAL EXPERT for just a few bucks…

Go get it!

Tell him that Ronin sent you…

Highly recommended!


2 Responses to “Solar Panels are “Elven Magic” I tell you!”

  1. Steve Spence October 4, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    You say the nicest things, LOL

    • Renaissance Ronin October 5, 2011 at 3:32 am #

      Have to.

      I remember getting my mouth washed out with soap… a lot… as a kid. 🙂

      Seriously though, thanks for all the hard work you do to help others. We appreciate it!

Comments are closed.