What Are Solar Cells: Solar Cell Cost and Definition

They’re becoming difficult to escape, the glistening black plaques atop rooftops and in yards. Neighbors, friends, and strangers all tapping into the limitless power of the sun to keep the lights on.

Solar cells and panels haven’t become ubiquitous enough to feel dull yet. And yet they’re a relic, technologically speaking, of the space age. Long before a solar cell was placed into your keyboard or used to charge your cell phone, it was powering satellites orbiting the earth.

Solar Cell

Image Source: What is a Solar Cell?

The technology has evolved a bit since those 1950s solar cells made their first volts of electricity. They’re well worth the curiosity that would provoke someone to ask, “What are solar cells?”

You’ve come to the right place for the answer. This helpful guide will:

  • Give a definition of solar cell technology and explain how it works.
  • Show ranges in solar cell prices.
  • Discuss the different types of solar cells.
  • Weigh the solar cells advantages and disadvantages.

But before we delve into the inner workings of solar cells, let’s take a look back and work our way to a definition of solar cells.

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Solar Cell Definition: Electric Sunlight

When people seek a solar cell definition or wonder what are solar cells, they often return to shiny black rectangles absorbing the sun’s light. But it’s difficult to pull out a solar cell definition when staring at a mere panel.

These ubiquitous black squares are one of the best-known “green” technologies: photovoltaic cells — better known as solar cells — which can be grouped to create solar panels. They’re key to understanding the solar cell definition.

Energy gathered from a solar cell can create electricity to heat or cool a home or even charge an electric car. This conversion of energy from one form to another is a fundamental part of the definition of solar cells.

Gather enough solar cells together and you’ll form a solar array which can run an average household. An even larger solar array can power many thousands of homes.

A solar cell’s dexterity — it can power anything from keyboards to cities — makes it one of the most useful green technologies. This modularity and ability to multiply is an integral part of the solar cell definition.

Many may ask themselves, “What are solar cells?” A big step toward understanding them lies in learning how a solar cell works, which also informs our solar cell definition.

The sun’s energy is actually photons being fired off from the giant ball of burning gas at the heart of our solar system.

Solar cells use a semiconductor material, generally silicon, which lets loose electrons when struck by photons. These electrons then travel to the other end of the panel, generating a charge. This is known as the “photovoltaic effect.”

Some solar cells can even convert artificial light produced by a bulb into more electricity.

Now you finally have an answer to “what are solar cells?” These panels define green technology for many. We’re one step closer to finding a definition of solar cell.

The solar cell definition must go beyond just power generation. Different types of solar cells can serve other purposes, such as light sensors, light meters, and infrared detectors.

When searching for a definition of solar cells, it’s important to include all of the above as background information.

But now that we know what are solar cells, as well as how they work, we can form a working solar cell definition: A solar cell is a device which converts light energy into electricity using the photovoltaic effect.

The definition of solar cell should also have this addendum: the conversion and electricity-generating capacity of the device varies depending on its exposure to light.

Now that we have a working definition of solar cell, and understand what are solar cells, let’s take a look at the different types of solar cells.

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Mono, Poly, Thin: The Types of Solar Cells

Before discussing the different types of solar cells, it’s important to understand the technology’s evolution. That means going back to the solar cell’s Space Age beginnings.

The first useable solar cell was created by Bell Telephone company in 1954, according to the American Physical Society.

These early types of solar cells powered space satellites.

Solar cells were then shrunk. Consumers first encountered them in small electronics in the 1970s. These types of solar cells have been used to power gadgets such as reading lights, calculators, and keyboards ever since.

Less than a decade later, the solar cell price for consumers fell. Certain types of solar cells began partially powering homes, and in some cases fully powered houses and facilities in remote, off-the-grid locations.

Those early types of solar cells were relatively homogenous. Today, not all types of solar cells are created equal.

Depending on the semiconductor material they’re made of, some solar cells are more efficient than others. But there are solar cells advantages and disadvantages for each type.

Solar cell price also varies depending upon the types of solar cells in question.

Solar cell cost has been a difficult figure to pin down. The technology has matured, and efficiencies and advancements have made prices drop at a rate of about 50 percent every ten years.

Solar cell cost is subject to its own version of Moore’s Law, called “Swanson’s Law,” which states that solar cell price drops 20 percent every time the cumulative volume shipped doubles.

Solar cell price is measured at dollars-to-watt, a ratio of the initial investment spread over the number of watts a solar panel produces. The solar cell price, by the per-watt measure, averaged $3.57 in 2016, according to energysage.com.

These prices vary based upon the types of solar cells one purchases, of which there are generally three: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film — often referred to as first, second, and third generation cells.

Within these types of solar cells are various derivations and changes, though the general construction of each is the same.

Of all the types of solar cells, monocrystalline silicon varieties are the more efficient and more expensive kind. These types of solar cells are known for their trademark wafer pattern, which make the cells look like they’re made of small white diamonds.

Polycrystalline silicon, of all the types of solar cells, hit the sweet spot between cost and efficiency for most consumers. Unlike their monocrystalline counterparts, these types of solar cells consist of smaller crystals. It appears to be made of metal flakes as a result.

Thin-film, or third generation, has yet to develop into an economic competitor, at least when compared to other types of solar cells. They do have a minimal environmental impact when compared to its counterparts.

But still, most thin-film panels have yet to meet the dollar-to-watt figures of other types of solar cells.

Each of these comes with their own solar cells advantages and disadvantages. But a solar cell’s pros and cons must be measured on several levels.

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Solar Cells Advantages and Disadvantages

One of the precursors to the solar cell was a “solar oven,” essentially a black box which cooked food on a sunny day.

But this early technology also illustrated pros and cons of relying on the sun for energy: cloudy days meant raw food.

We experience a similar phenomenon with solar cells advantages and disadvantages today. All of our technological advances haven’t overcome the sun’s ability to regularly disappear.

According to National Geographic, the sun in one minute creates enough energy to power all of our electrical needs for a year. Yet when counting solar cells advantages and disadvantages, our technology cannot capture even a minuscule fraction of the sun’s potential energy.

Types Of Solar Cells

Image Source: Solar Cell – Advantages and Disadvantages

The solar cells advantages and disadvantages debate centers itself on one problem: the source of the energy — the sun — isn’t always reliable.

Solar cells advantages and disadvantages depend on the sun’s habits at a given location — how often it appears, with what intensity, and how reliably throughout the year.

For solar cells advantages and disadvantages to end up generally positive, the location must be sunny, include a clear view of the sun, and space for solar panels.

A cost-benefit analysis usually offers the best measure of solar cells advantages and disadvantages. But the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Incentives, tax cuts, and programs vary state by state, making broad statements about solar cells advantages and disadvantages difficult to make.

For example, utilities in certain states refund homeowners whose solar cells send power back into the grid. Over time, this could help recoup the investment into solar cells sooner.  But this can’t be included in any dissection of solar cells advantages and disadvantages unless you live in a state with such refunds.

Since it’s hard to decipher if and when solar panels will pay off, we can’t weigh the specific financial solar cells advantages and disadvantages. That’ll require back-of-the-envelope math for every curious person.

There are also some pros and definite cons to solar cell technology.

Portability can be counted as a benefit when researching solar cells advantages and disadvantages. Solar technologies have now become mobile, allowing for all-in-one charging stations and even solar cell generators.

The usual solar cells advantages and disadvantages apply to even portable varieties. While nifty, these “solar cells to-go” face reliability issues and still depend on the sun.

Solar cells advantages and disadvantages can — and should — also be looked at beyond the personal to encompass the whole planet.

The solar cells advantages and disadvantages discussion should also include environmental effects. A solar cell does not, unlike fossil fuels, produce carbon dioxide when creating electricity.

Solar technology also does not include many of the smog-creating contaminants and pollutants released by old-fashioned power plants. This lowers the greenhouse gas output.

However, solar cells advantages and disadvantages aren’t clean-cut environmentally either. The production of solar cells requires the harmful and toxic materials, which in and of themselves may harm the environment.

There are two more factors to consider when debating solar cells advantages and disadvantages: fragility and durability.

While it may seem like solar cells will produce power perpetually, their actually useful life is between 20 and 30 years, according to Energy Informative. This means the solar cells advantages and disadvantages will depend on how quickly you recoup the initial investment into solar cell technology.

The remainder of the solar cells’ useful life will be profitable — the goal is to get to that point sooner rather than later.

One of the worst factors in the solar cells advantages and disadvantages calculus is the fragility of the technology itself. Solar cells are fickle and prone to breaking.

DIYers trying to build their own solar panel are familiar with the pain of seeing a cell in the middle of a panel crack after the most gingerly taps.

Still, the myriad factors included in the decision to go solar determine your personal solar cells advantages and disadvantages. It always comes down to dollars and cents.

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Solar cells may feel like a new technology. They should — the Space Age produced them. The awe of that time, and the technology it produced, hasn’t faded yet.

We will eventually become familiar with solar cells in more advanced countries, the same way we take indoor plumbing and reliable electrical grids for granted.

As solar cell prices fall, they will become increasingly familiar. With major advances in battery technology, more and more homes will get their power from our solar system’s most reliable source.

It’s a delicate moment right now, though. The advantages and disadvantages of solar technology still fight it out to a veritable draw. They will continue to do so until price decreases push the “pros” column firmly ahead.

Until then, do some math to see if now’s a good time to invest in solar cells. Maybe do it outside, if it’s a sunny day.

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