Solar 101

The basics

Solar was discovered in 1954 after scientists at a telecommunications company determined that silicon the element found in sand created an electrical charge when exposed to sunlight. Solar cells continue to develop with higher quality commercially available panels now reaching over 20% efficiency.

The Direct Current (DC) within a solar cell is precipitated by the sun rays (photons) and converted into Alternating Current (AC) by solar inverters to be utilised by our electrical appliances. It really is energy from the sun.


Are subatomic negatively charged particles that when released from an atom create electrical current.


Distribution Network Service Provider – The entities responsible for the ongoing development, maintenance and design of the electrical distribution network. In most states this is typically the networks below 66kV. Eg Essential Energy (NSW) Ergon (QLD). TNSP’s are responsible for transmission networks typically above 66kV


The point at which the energy produced from a solar system is on par (parity) as the levelised cost of energy in kWh on a retail energy bill.


Refers to the irregular nature of solar PV generation. That is during non daylight hours or reduced generation during inclement weather.


Kilowatt hour is the scientific measure of the unit of energy that is transmitted or used at a constant rate (kW – power). Retail energy bills measure units consumed in kWh.


is a simple metric to determine how much the energy that a solar system investment is costing you over its lifetime. This calculation can then be compared to your grid energy cost to determine projected cost savings. The simple formula for LCoE is:

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measured in (power) either kW or kVa are passed through energy retailers from network providers and are provisioned towards the cost of transmission/distribution (poles and wires) infrastructure.The distribution network must maintain sufficient transmission capacity to supply a customer’s peak demand at any given time.


Refers to the application required for all solar PV connections to the electrical network.kWh Kilowatt hour is the scientific measure of the unit of energy that is transmitted or used at a constant rate (kW – power). Retail energy bills measure units consumed in kWh.


The power usage that is consumed on a sites meter by the electrical appliances connected


Refers to the energy that is generated by a solar system and directly consumed by the load


Energy generated in ways that are less harmful to the environment because they are not as dependent on finite natural resources, particularly fossil fuels such as oil, coal or natural gas. Examples are solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric.


Multiple solar cells make up a solar panel, and multiple panels can be wired together to form a solar array. The more panels you install, the more energy you can expect to generate, but depending on the efficiency of your panels, you may be able to make the same amount of energy with fewer panels.


All of the other physical parts that make up a solar system outside of the panels: inverters, wiring, mounting hardware, monitoring system.


When referring to a solar cell or a solar panel, efficiency refers to the percentage of sunlight captured and converted into usable electricity.


The interconnected network of equipment that delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers. Often called “the grid,” this infrastructure is made up of generating stations that produce electrical power; high-voltage transmission lines that carry power from distant sources to demand centres; and distribution lines that connect individual customers to the system. In other words, the poles and wires that transport electricity from where it’s made to your home or business.


A solar array installed on land; used primarily for large-scale commercial and utility-scale solar projects such as power plants that generate power for thousands of homes and businesses.


A contract between the homeowner and the local utility allowing the homeowner to connect their solar power system to the electric grid. In some areas, this enables the homeowner to receive a credit on their electricity bill from the utility for any surplus electricity their solar power system generates.


A solar power system generates direct current (DC) electricity, yet homes and businesses use alternating current (AC) electricity to power electronic devices. A solar inverter takes the DC electricity from the solar system and uses it to create AC electricity. Inverters are like the brains of the solar system. Along with converting DC to AC power, they also provide ground fault protection and system stats including voltage and current on AC and DC circuits and energy production.


The introduction of micro-inverters is one of the biggest technology shifts in the photovoltaic (PV) industry. Placed on the back of each solar panel, a micro-inverter optimizes energy production for each individual solar panel, not just for an entire solar system, as central inverters do. This enables every solar panel to perform at its maximum potential. It means one underperforming solar panel won’t drag down the performance of entire solar array, as opposed to central inverters that optimize for the weakest link. Module – Another name for a solar panel.


The racking and mounting equipment used to secure solar panels to rooftops (or to trackers in ground mounted power plant installations) and to each other; often made with lightweight aluminum frames and clips capable of withstanding the elements while minimizing impact to the roof.


When a grid-tied solar system produces more energy than is needed, the excess power is sent to the electrical grid to be redistributed where it’s needed. This is called “exporting” or “spilling” to the grid. At night, the grid will provide conventionally created power for the solar customer’s use. A net meter records the energy sent compared to the energy received from the grid and credited a Feed in Tarif to their bill.


The ongoing operational needs of a solar system, including cleaning, repairs, replacement of parts, bill management and so on; primarily refers to larger-scale commercial and utility-scale solar systems.


PV technologies convert sunlight to electricity through a naturally occurring process in certain types of material, which are called semiconductors. When photons (energy particles) from the sun hit semiconducting materials such as silicon, electrons are knocked free from their atoms. If conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides of a solar cell, it forms an electrical circuit. When electrons flow through such a circuit, they generate electricity, powering electrical devices or sending electricity to the grid.


Solar storage systems are comprised of high-capacity rechargeable batteries (or battery banks) that can store excess energy generated by a solar system for use at night or as a backup during emergency grid outages or other times when the solar system cannot generate energy in real time. Batteries suited for solar incorporate a variety of technologies, including lead acid, lithiumion or flow batteries.


Solar panel arrays that are raised above parking lots to provide both shade and energy production. (See also solar canopies.)


A single light-capturing unit in a PV solar panel; solar cells are made of silicon, like semiconductors. They are constructed with a positive layer and a negative layer, which together create an electric field, just like in a battery, and are extremely thin and light.


The percentage of sunlight that solar panels can convert to electricity. The first solar panels had about 6 percent efficiency. SunPower solar panels have the world record for efficiency of commercially available panels — 22.8 percent1, but a panel we recently developed in the lab was verified at 24.1 percent efficiency2. Solar panel efficiency matters because high-efficiency panels can generate more power in less space over time than conventional panels, so you need fewer panels to get a higher return on your investment.


A company that sells solar equipment to homeowners, businesses and other organizations; may sell products from one or many manufacturers and may also provide installation and maintenance services.


The layout and orientation of a solar system, optimized for maximum energy production based on roof or land characteristics, the angle of the sun, shading, climate and aesthetic appeal. A solar PV system should be designed by a qualified CEC member.


An expert or company that specializes in delivering and physically installing solar equipment on buildings and homes.


Specialized software used to track and manage energy generation and usage, billing, carbon offsets and more; can be accessed via a mobile device, home computer or a remote operations center.


PV solar panels are made up of many solar cells linked together to form a circuit and are mounted in a frame. PV solar panels generate DC electricity, which must then be converted to AC electricity by an inverter because the U.S. electrical grid uses AC power. (See also inverter, photovoltaic.)


Rooftop home solar panels usually are naturally cleaned by seasonal rains or melting snow, but excessive build up of dirt or debris can reduce efficiency. Panels can be sprayed off when they’re cool (in the early morning or evening) with a garden hose and gently wiped with a soft sponge or cloth – or owners can hire a cleaning professional for the job. SunPower uses robots to clean large-scale solar ground-mounted solar systems more quickly and with less water than manually cleaning methods.


A large-scale, usually ground-mounted solar array built for utility or commercial use.


Thin-film photovoltaic strips or tiles that can be applied directly to roofing cloth, just like regular roofing shingles. These solar shingles capture sunlight and convert it to electricity but do so less efficiently.


PV solar technology constructed with very thin layers of PV material to create lightweight, often flexible sheets of solar energy-producing modules. Thin-film solar is generally cheaper and more versatile than conventional solar panels, but it is also less efficient and degrades more quickly over time.


Mounting hardware used in power plant installations enabling solar panels to move and follow the sun throughout the day, increasing solar electricity production. (See ground-mounted solar.)


Zero net energy (ZNE) (also referred to as net zero energy) identifies homes or buildings that generate as much energy as they consume, usually via a combination of green building techniques that include a solar energy system.

Is there a solar term you’ve been wondering about that is not listed here? Let us know via our contact us link.

Curious if solar is right for your home? Check out our solar calculator to see how much you might save.