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As the world seeks to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and supply its energy needs through renewable sources, it has turned to solar energy to keep the lights on and the power flowing.
But even as more and more solar energy systems are installed across the nation, basic questions still remain about this technology. For instance, do solar panels work without direct sunlight?
Solar panels are at their peak operating efficiency and produce the greatest amount of energy when they are exposed to direct sunlight. However, solar panels can still work without direct sunlight, under cloudy, rainy, and even snowy conditions, albeit with less efficiency and lower amounts of electricity generated.
Solar energy has been touted as a game-changing technology that can dramatically reduce global reliance on fossil fuels as energy sources. Contrary to popular belief, solar panels do not necessarily function only when direct sunlight shines on them. Even when Mother Nature seemingly does not cooperate, solar panels can still produce electricity, and here’s how.
The basic idea behind solar energy is that when photons from the sun hit semiconductor cells in solar panels, they are turned into electricity. Photons are basically massless units of energy, and in the context of solar energy, they comprise what is commonly known as sunlight.
So, it makes sense that solar panels would not be able to make energy if there wasn’t enough sunlight. After all, how can you have solar energy output without solar (i.e., sunlight) input?
But as it turns out, this is not necessarily true.
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Do Solar Panels Work Without Direct Sunlight?
Solar panels can produce electricity without direct sunlight and under less-than-ideal conditions, including times when it is cloudy, rainy, or even snowy. The output of the solar panel may be different when compared to ideal conditions but solar panels will work without direct sunlight.
Do Solar Panels Work on Cloudy Days?
As a general rule of thumb, four hours of full sunlight exposure (i.e., direct sunlight) equates to roughly 4,000 watt-hours of electricity produced. This is considered a good day for solar energy production under ideal conditions. However, no matter where you live, it is safe to say that not every day will have perfect sunny skies for harvesting sunlight into electricity.
Solar panels can make usable amounts of electricity even when the sun isn’t directly shining on them. While the energy output may not be as high as under sunny conditions, solar panels can still take those reduced photon levels and turn them into clean power.
This means that even on cloudy days with little to no direct sunlight, solar panels can still convert indirect sunlight at a rate that is roughly 10% to 60% of normal energy production, depending on the degree of cloud cover.
What’s more, the same concept applies to those times of the day when solar panels are partially or completely in the shade, either due to the rising or setting position of the sun or obstructions in the surrounding area like trees or structures.
Do Solar Panels Work on Rainy Days?
Not only do solar panels work without direct sunlight, but they can also produce electricity when it rains. The amount of energy output will naturally vary depending on how hard the rain is falling, but short of there being an absolute deluge (i.e., showers or moderate rainfall), you can expect solar panels to convert roughly 10% to 25% of the normal levels of electricity produced in sunny conditions.
Occasional rainfall can actually be beneficial for solar panels in one important way. When dust, dirt, and other kinds of debris build up on top of solar panels, they can block photons from getting into the semiconductor cells, which lowers the amount of energy they can produce. In fact, dirty solar panels can be very inefficient, producing far less energy than normal.
Rain can wash away the dirt that has built up on top of solar panels, leaving them clean and ready to take in and use the photons that make electricity.
Do Solar Panels Work in Snowy Weather?
As long as the snowfall is light, photons will continue to pass between the snowflakes and onto solar panels, where they can be converted into electricity. Incredibly, solar panels can even produce power in snowy conditions.
Most solar panels are designed so that falling snow slides off rather than accumulating. Even if snow collects on solar panels during a heavy snowstorm, it will eventually melt, and in so doing, dirt and debris will be carried away with it as the snow melt drips right off the panel.
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How To Make the Most of Your Solar Panel System?
Contrary to popular belief, solar energy systems can continue to produce electricity when conditions are less than ideal and there is no direct sunlight. Solar panels work even when the weather is cloudy, rainy, or snowy. There are additional measures that can further maximize the energy output of solar panels and harness the electricity that they produce.
The first measure relates to the inverter system that is being used to convert the DC electricity generated by the panels into usable AC power. Here’s how the type of inverter that is used in a solar energy system can affect its energy output:
- A string inverter system ties the panels in an array in sequence so that reduced output in one panel can affect electricity production for the entire solar platform. In other words, if one panel is in the shade and has diminished output, the entire array of solar panels will be affected.
- In contrast, a microinverter system isolates solar panels and each produces electricity independently from the others. What this means is that if one panel has reduced output due to sunlight conditions (e.g., it is in the shade of a nearby tree), the electricity generated by the other panels is unaffected.
A microinverter system can help make sure that even when conditions for solar energy aren’t ideal, panels that aren’t affected will still be able to keep up their best output levels. Using solar batteries is another important part of getting most of your power from the sun.
Simply put, solar batteries allow operators to store unused electricity produced by solar panels. The power stored in solar batteries can be used to make up for days when the sun doesn’t shine as much. It can also be used as a backup power source when the power goes out for a long time.
The term “solar energy” can be a bit misleading. While it is true that maximum energy output will occur when direct sunlight hits solar panels, it is important to keep in mind that solar panels can still work in suboptimal conditions like cloudy, rainy, or snowy weather. Even if the sun isn’t shining on them, solar panels can still work if they are connected to a microinverter system.