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In addition to homeowners and businesses handling their own installations, many electric cooperatives are offering community solar programs as an alternative to purchasing a rooftop solar array. This helps keep costs down and puts the burden of maintaining and operating the system on the co-op. The question that remains for many is: How do solar panels actually generate electricity? 

Solar panels convert sunlight to usable electricity

The solar panels you see on street signs or rooftops consist of small, connected photovoltaic (PV) cells – “photo” meaning light and “voltaic” meaning the production of electricity. These cells consist of two layers of a semi-conducting material, typically silicon, which are infused with additional elements giving the top layer a negative charge and the bottom layer a positive charge. These two silicon layers are also sandwiched between several other coatings, including a glass casing, to optimize the PV cell’s energy production and provide protection from weather and flying debris.

Follow the journey of solar energy

The sun emits massive amounts of solar energy each day in the form of photons, which are small particles of light. When these photons “collide” hard enough with PV cells, electrons are knocked loose from atoms in the top silicon layer of the cells, leaving gaps to be filled by electrons from the bottom layer. Because of the electric field created by the two silicon layers, the loose electrons circulate through the cells in a single direction – out toward the metal sides of the solar panel – creating electricity with a direct current (DC).

The newly generated electricity flows out of the panels, through conductive wire and into a power inverter system that converts the power from DC power to the alternating current (AC) power used in homes and businesses. 

The alternating current flows from the inverter to the breaker box and is distributed through circuits as needed. Solar energy that goes unused will flow through your electric meter and back onto the electric grid. 

Cooperative solar is booming

Electric cooperatives are leading the electric utility industry in the development of “community” solar. This shared solar model allows co-ops to develop an array for member-owners who can either purchase the power or lease panels. A community solar program makes solar more affordable and equitable for co-op members who are unable to install rooftop solar because of tree shading, renting rather than owning or a number of other factors.

Rooftop solar may be an option for you

If the costs make sense and you have a suitable south-facing roof with an adequate structure, a rooftop solar array can be a great way to reduce your monthly energy bill and help the environment. However, you must be aware of the payback period for your initial investment and your responsibilities related to a solar installation. For example, by law you must talk with your local electric cooperative before installing solar PV on your home – and find out what the co-op’s policies are regarding member-owned generation.  

Kaley Lockwood writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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