solar panels on a roof

What are Solar Panels?

You may have heard about solar panels before and wondered what all the buzz was about. There has certainly been an increasing amount of ‘buzz’ about solar panels over the past year or two as the price Australian householders pay for power has soared. So, what’s the connection?

As an energy consumer, every time you put on the dishwasher or watch an episode on Netflix, you’re consuming electricity, which if you’re in charge of the bills, costs you money, as you see on your monthly or quarterly energy bill.

Solar panels can help reduce or eliminate these energy costs because they convert renewable energy from the sun into usable electricity for your home. This guide breaks down what solar panels are, when they were invented, the benefits of solar panels and more.

 

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What is a solar panel?

A solar panel is a device that converts sunlight into electricity by using photovoltaic (PV) cells that are made of silicon or other conductive materials. Solar panels are, in effect, a collection of these cells, held within sheets of glass inside a metal frame and connected by wires. The more sunlight that hits the PV cells in a solar panel, the more electricity the cells produce.

Householders usually have their solar panels affixed to their roof to maximise the amount of sunlight they receive. This is why the angle and direction the panels are placed on the roof is important, and the amount of shade they receive is minimised. That said, solar panels still generate electricity on cloudy days and on during winter when daylight hours may be shorter. Solar panels also don’t need high heat to generate electricity; it’s the light from the sun that’s doing the work, not the warmth.

Solar panels are made in a range of sizes and of varying levels of quality, by manufacturers in Australia and overseas. Householders usually receive advice from a solar installer on which panels to choose, based on their budget and how they hope to use the energy their panels generate.

How solar panels work with the rest of a solar system – comprising an inverter and sometimes a battery – to create and potentially store electricity that can be used in your home is a longer story! You can read more about solar panels and solar systems in our guide to solar panels.

When were solar panels invented?

A definitive history of solar panels is hard to find, with many inventors, scientists and engineers playing a role in pushing the technology forward into the form we see on roofs today. The seeds of their invention is usually traced back to 1839 when the photovoltaic (PV) effect was first discovered by a young French physicist named Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. In 1873, English engineer Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium was photoconductive – meaning that a substance becomes electrically conductive when it’s exposed to sufficient light energy – and by 1883, Charles Fritts, an American investor, had built on this by making a solar cell using gold-plated selenium.

While it converted just 1% of the sunlight it absorbed into electricity, Fritts’ work helped kick off a race to perfect a cell or other technologies that would convert sunlight into electricity. A US scientist called Russell Ohl is largely credited with opening up the possibilities of a silicon solar cell, while studying silicon crystals at Bell Laboratories in 1939. By the 1950s, Bell Labs’ Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson had sidelined selenium to create the first modern silicon solar cell that had a somewhat practical application.

Word of the exciting developments in solar energy were picked up in Australia, where there wasn’t yet significant exploration of its oil or gas reserves. The CSIRO identified solar energy as an alternative energy source worth investigating and shortly after created a solar water heater.

The success of this innovation – the heaters really took off when they were installed in government-owned housing in the Northern Territory in the 1960s – helped fuel broader work on solar energy, which was used in commercial applications by companies such as Telecom, the predecessor of Telstra, from the 1970s.

While Australia recorded plenty of ‘solar firsts’, including Professor Martin Green’s masterminding of a technology that made solar cells more efficient, the country’s first solar PV system for householders that was connected to the electricity grid wasn’t unveiled until 1994. As with how solar panels work, the story of solar technology is, of course, more complex than this potted history suggests. AGL captures the highlights of Australia’s part in that history.

What are solar panels used for?

Thanks to Australia’s long hours of usually bright sunlight, solar panels of varying sizes have quickly become a popular source of renewable energy with many uses, including:

  • Producing electricity for homes, businesses, public places and community solar gardens
  • Charging electric vehicles (EVs) at home and at public charging stations
  • Powering remote areas, such as rural communities and off-grid locations
  • Heating water for homes and swimming pools
  • Powering portable solar generators used for camping or back-up power
  • Powering outdoor lighting, Christmas lights, lanterns and garden features.

Five benefits of solar panels

Solar panels harness power from the sun to generate electricity, which in itself is a massive drawcard for homeowners and businesses looking to save on the price of using electricity from the grid. But there are other a advantages of solar panels, including:

  1. Solar panels produce renewable energy that is abundant and free
  2. Solar panels don’t produce greenhouse gas emissions while producing electricity
  3. Electricity production by solar panels doesn’t create noise
  4. Solar panels can increase the value of properties that have them installed
  5. Solar panels require little maintenance and typically have a long lifespan.

It’s no wonder that more people are turning to this innovative and cost-effective solution for their energy needs.

Compare solar electricity plans in your state

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on the Ausgrid network in Sydney but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 3911kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on the Citipower network in Melbourne but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 4000kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on the Energex network in Brisbane but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 4613kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Here are some of the cheapest solar-specific deals from the retailers on our database. These costs are based on SA Power network in Adelaide but prices will vary depending on your circumstances. We show one product per retailer, listed in order of lowest price first. Annual price estimates assume general energy usage of 4011kWh/year for a residential customer on a single rate tariff. Price estimates exclude solar feed-in tariff credits. These are products from referral partners†. Our database may not cover all deals in your area, and please check retailer websites for up to date information.

Are solar panels expensive?

Solar panels are typically bought as part of a larger purchase of a solar system, which includes an inverter and sometimes a battery. As such, splitting out the cost of panels may not be helpful in estimating the cost of turning to solar energy for your home electricity use. That said, Canstar Blue has information on the cost of solar panels, as well as on solar systems and solar installation. Solar panel costs will be dictated by the brand you choose, as well as the number of panels you buy.

Installing solar panels can seem expensive – after all, it involves spending several thousand dollars – but it’s important to consider whether this cost will be offset by your potential savings on electricity bills or the feed-in tariffs you may receive for sending your solar energy back to the electricity grid, and if so, how quickly. This payback period, otherwise known as a buyback period, is predicted to decrease to an average of three to four years for residential solar systems. Additionally, there are rebates for installing solar panels that help reduce the upfront cost and multiple options for financing your solar panels.

Jared Mullane
Energy Contributor
Jared Mullane was a content producer and editor at Canstar Blue for three years until 2022, most recently as Energy Editor. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Griffith University.

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