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Q: How do solar panels generate energy?

A: Solar panels are comprised of many solar photovoltaic, or PV cells. PV cells can produce an electric current when exposed to light. When the sun shines onto a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by these PV cells and creates electrical charges that cause electricity to flow. This electricity is converted from direct current to alternating current, stepped up in voltage, then travels through various portions of the electric grid before being delivered to your home or business.

Q: Do solar panels still generate energy when it’s cloudy or rainy, or during the winter?

A: Photovoltaic panels can use direct or indirect sunlight to generate power, though they are most effective in direct sunlight. Solar panels will still work even when the light is reflected or partially blocked by clouds. Solar panels also operate more efficiently in colder weather, meaning that even though there may be less hours of the day with direct sunlight, the panels are able to more efficiently turn that sunlight into direct energy.

Q: Is solar energy expensive?

A: New utility scale solar (like what DTE and other energy companies are developing) is now one of the least expensive forms of renewable energy. When comparing the lifetime project costs and energy production, utility scale solar projects are over three times more affordable than residential rooftop solar. They are also comparable in cost to wind projects of the same size and are on par or cheaper than new natural gas, coal, or nuclear energy options.

Q: Is solar energy safe?

A: Solar energy creates clean, renewable power from the sun and has enormous benefits for the environment.
Generating electricity with solar power instead of other traditional forms can dramatically reduce emissions – particularly greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide. 

Q: How long can solar panels operate?

A: Solar panels are generally in operation for about 25 years. The exact number depends on several factors, like the type of panel, the way the system is installed, the climate where you live, and the maintenance. While solar panels continue to generate energy as they age, the output can decline. Solar panel degradation rates are improving as technology advances. Today’s solar panels still operate at 82.5 percent at the end of their useful life.

Q: What innovations can we expect to see in solar panel operation?

A: Solar technology is advancing rapidly, improving the efficiency and lifespan of solar panels. The latest solar arrays have the ability to move with the sun, like sunflowers do, or capture the sun’s rays from both the front and back. Additional innovations on the horizon include solar roadways, windows, and building facades, as well as the installation of floating solar farms, which are comprised of photovoltaic panels being placed on reservoirs and other bodies of water.

Q: Can solar panels be recycled at the end of their useful life?

A: Though there are a few different types of panels, they’re usually manufactured from silicon, aluminum, and glass. When separated and processed correctly, these components can be recycled and sold to PV manufacturers. In addition to the monetary value of the material, recycling has the potential to create thousands of jobs for workers involved in the process, as well as new industries focused on utilizing recovered materials. Solar panel recycling now has the potential to become a $15 billion industry of its own by 2050.

To learn more about solar energy, visit sun101.org. You can also find information on DTE’s renewable energy initiatives at dtecleanenergy.com.