Solar Mechanics, Inc. © 2008
This page will frequently use terms that are defined on the Solar Terms link at the of the page.  To be clear, there are two types of "solar" that we hear about.  We will use the term "solar" to refer to "solar electricity" and not solar water heating; which is usually for water heaters or pool heating.

        Solar electricity means converting sunlight into useable electricity to power anything such as TV's, lights, air conditioning, etc.  This is amazing technology that is 100% clean power, all natural, never ending, and unlimited amounts for free.

        There is another key distinction made. on-grid and off-grid.  Only on-grid will be discussed moving forward which describes being connected to your local power provider like LADWP or SCE.
        At the very highest level, think of your power provider as a big battery.  During the day when the sun is at it's peak, your solar power system "recharges" the battery by producing surplus electricity (spinning your meter backwards).  Then when the sun goes down, the electricity flows back into your premises at a lower rate.  The equipment needed to make all this magic happen has been in development since the 1800's.  The current silicon semiconductor based solar panels were developed in 1953.  Using this early technology, an average 3kw house would have cost $4,500,000 to install a solar power system.  Today's cost may be well under $20,000 and lower with rebates and federal tax credits.  Over the past fifty years, billions of dollars have been spent to increase the efficiency of solar panels. 

        The goal of solar electricity has been to achieve cost unity with other forms of power generation such as burning coal, nuclear, or hydro.  Given the new utility rebates, federal tax credits, and increasing electricity rates, many feel we have or will soon be crossing that line. Solar power has an additional element to it.  The system will pay for itself in a given period, then will reward you with free electricity for life.  We are now seeing return on investment in the 20% per year level.  Compare that to your 401-K, stock portfolio, or bank CD.  Did we mention that you will be helping the environment while enjoying all these other financial benefits too?

If you really want to know how solar electricity works, we can set you up with Solar Mechanics' president, who is a Chemical Engineer, or the Vice President, who is an Electrical Engineer.  Make sure to get a lot of sleep and some coffee. Really, they are very accessible and matter of fact are present at installations to personally participate to insure the highest quality level available.
For the rest of us who just want to understand the basics of solar power, here it is.

Solar panels are also called solar cells, solar modules, or PV(photo voltaics).  Solar panels are converters.  By using silicon, which is a semiconductor, solar panels convert sunlight into electricity.  There are no moving parts, pollution, noise, smell, radiation, or even maintenance.

Sunlight consists of streams of photons that penetrate into the solar panels.  These photons penetrate into the silicon and collide with random silicon atoms.  The photons transfer its energy to the outer electron of the atom thereby setting free this outer electron.  The movement of these electrons makes up "electric current".

Each solar panel becomes a direct current (DC) power source, just like a battery.  Multiple panels are connected in parallel "strings" to an inverter.  The inverter converts the DC current into alternating current (AC) power which most household appliances use to operate on. 

Solar power systems generate the most power during daylight hours when the sunlight is directly perpendicular to the solar panels.  The solar electricity is fed to the house or commercial building through an inverter and associated equipment.  Any excess electricity generated by the solar power system will spin the meter backwards and be directed back into the "grid".   When the sun goes down, the electricity will then spin your meter forward as you consume electricity
again and flow back from the grid into your premise. 

There are many strategies in planning how much solar power to install.  Some people aim for a zero dollar electricity bill, while others just want enough to eliminate the higher cost tiers "time of use" or "tiered" areas of their electric bill.  Each energy provider has different pricing rates, we can help you make the best choice.