What is photovoltaic (PV) technology and how does it work? PV materials and devices convert sunlight into electrical energy. A single PV device is known as a cell. An individual PV cell is usually small, typically producing about 1 or 2 watts of power. These cells are made of different semiconductor materials and are often less than the thickness of four human hairs. In order to withstand the outdoors for many years, cells are sandwiched between protective materials in a combination of glass and/or plastics.
To boost the power output of PV cells, they are connected together in chains to form larger units known as modules or panels. Modules can be used individually, or several can be connected to form arrays. One or more arrays is then connected to the electrical grid as part of a complete PV system. Because of this modular structure, PV systems can be built to meet almost any electric power need, small or large.
PV modules and arrays are just one part of a PV system. Systems also include mounting structures that point panels toward the sun, along with the components that take the direct-current (DC) electricity produced by modules and convert it to the alternating-current (AC) electricity used to power all of the appliances in your home.
The largest PV systems in the country are located in California and produce power for utilities to distribute to their customers. The Solar Star PV power station produces 579 megawatts of electricity, while the Topaz Solar Farm and Desert Sunlight Solar Farm each produce 550 megawatts.
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Learn more about photovoltaics research in the Solar Energy Technologies Office, check out these solar energy information resources, and find out more about how solar works.