The most common type of solar panels - the ones you normally see on people's roofs - are called photovoltaic (PV) panels (photo = light, voltaic = to do with electricity). In other words, PV panels convert sunlight directly into electricity.
How do they work?
In 1839, a French physicist Edmund Bequerel first described something called the photoelectric effect. He discovered that certain materials would produce a small electric current when exposed to light. This is the principle used by PV solar panels. First practical use of solar panels did not happen until 1960s on space craft. Over the time, as the technology improved, panels became smaller and affordable enough for domestic use.
What is a solar cell?
A PV cell consists of two or more thin layers of semi-conducting material, most commonly silicon. When the silicon is exposed to light, electrical charges are generated and this can be conducted away by metal contacts as direct current (DC). The energy produced from a single cell is small, so multiple cells are connected together and encapsulated (usually behind glass) to form a module (sometimes referred to as a "panel"). The PV module is the principle building block of a PV system and any number of modules can be connected together to give the desired electrical output.
Do solar panels work in the UK?
Great if you live in sunny Australia, but is there enough sunshine in Britain to make the investment worthwhile? The short answer is yes. The good news is that despite our unpredictable weather, the sun does not have to be out for the panels to work. PV panels use light to produce energy, not heat, therefore they are able to produce some energy even on a cloudy day. The UK receives a comparable amount of sunlight to Germany, one of the leading markets for photovoltaics in the world.
In 2011 our government introduced the feed-in tariff to encourage solar power and make a very reasonable return on your investment while saving the planet.