What the heck is a solar panel? Colloquially, it's something that converts the sun's rays into electricity. People tend to use it generically. In your mind's eye, you right now may envision a large flat grayish black solar panel you once saw atop a house's roof. Chances are, however, that particular solar panel didn't create electricity, but instead created hot water - yes, hot water for a solar water heater -- as seen in these designs: http://www.fsec.ucf.edu/en/consumer/solar_hot_water/homes/index.htm/.
By contrast, making solar electricity for a home may involve installing what look like ordinary roof shingles. The shingles are coated with photovoltaic cells (a.k.a. solar cells), which convert sunlight into electricity (see a photo here: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/photovoltaics.html). This may seem like a lot of gobbledygook, but the solar field is full of terms that'd make eyes glaze over. To see how PV cells work, see a diagram here: http://www.fsec.ucf.edu/en/consumer/solar_electricity/basics/how_pv_cells_work.htm/.
What you really want to know is whether it makes sense financially to invest in solar energy for your home. After all, "distributed solar power" -- the term for photovoltaic panels installed on the roofs of buildings - could be a godsend when storms cause the power to go out; your lights and phone would still work, even if neighbors' don't. Answer: The technology is improving all the time, so if you call contractors and don't find it worthwhile right this minute, check again later. A company called Spectrolab has achieved what has been likened to a runner breaking the four-minute-mile mark. It broke the "40 percent barrier" (up from 18 percent), meaning its new solar cell converts at least 40 percent of the sun's energy into electricity. This could lead to systems that can produce energy for 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour, making it more cost competitive.
Fun fact: President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed atop the White House as a symbol of commitment to fighting the 1970s energy crisis (see photo: http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/ww2.htm/). The panels were removed during the Reagan Administration when the roof was being repaired. In 2002, a solar array was added to the White House's swimming pool cabana and groundskeeping building (see http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/grounds/pool.htm/).
For more cool info:
* Still confused? Heres another explanation of how solar cells work: http://science.howstuffworks.com/solar-cell.htm
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