How does a solar panel system work? The basic science is simple: light equals energy. But that doesn’t explain how that sphere of hot plasma in the sky is going to power your building.
So let’s start with the basics: how a solar panel system works. Then we’ll talk about all of the ways your business can benefit from commercial solar power.
The building blocks of a commercial solar system
A solar system (not like our galactic home) typically consists of the following:
- Solar panels – Solar panels directly harvest energy from the sun using solar cells. These panels consist of photovoltaic (PV) modules that include 60 (or more) solar cells. PV modules are rated based on their output and their efficiency. The more efficient your panels, the more power you collect. What's the highest efficiency for commercially-available panels? Currently it’s at about 24%.
- Inverter – The electric current generated by solar panels is DC (direct current). However, the electricity powering your business is AC (alternating current). So your inverter steps in to perform a little electronic wizardry—turning DC into AC. Then, when the energy leaves, it’s ready to use. From there, it can pass through a meter, go straight into your building or be fed into the grid, depending upon your setup.
- Meter – A typical power company meter tracks how much energy you use. In most cases, you’ll get a new one that can track what you use from the grid and what you export to the grid (more on that below). This is called gross metering. In some cases, your electric provider may prefer to install a new meter to separately track the power you export.
Your commercial solar panel system will also include mounting equipment, wiring, switches and other electrical gear. If you choose, you might also a incorporate a battery system. Everything together, minus the solar panels, is known as the “balance of system.” You won’t be tested later, but you might want to use these terms to impress your colleagues.
The benefits and bragging rights of commercial solar
This is the fun part. When your inverter is connected to your circuit breaker, your system can start using the solar power generated by your panels.
Then, when you convert more energy than you can use, your system will automatically feed it back to the power grid. This process is called net metering (although you should check with your utility company to confirm net metering is available in your area*). With net metering, your meter dial literally spins backwards for every kilowatt per hour you feed in, lowering your energy bill and offsetting your operating costs. It’s kind of like turning your clocks back for daylight savings time, only in this instance, time really is money.
And at night, or when you’re using more energy than your system can provide, you’ll just pull from the grid like you’d normally do.
Now, we haven’t even touched on the eco-friendly benefits of using commercial solar to help power your business. Because going solar lowers your business’ carbon footprint, it's a boon for public relations and gives everyone major bragging rights. Not to mention that it can also contribute towards LEED certification.
Hopefully you’re either ready to wow your peers with your knowledge of PV science and AC/DC voltage, or you’re ready to continue your investigation to determine if commercial solar power is right for your business. Either way, you’re feeling electric.
*Utility credits and incentives vary depending on your location, and occasionally change. Check out the dsireusa.org website—a great resource with detailed solar policy information.