One of the most common questions people ask when they start looking into solar is; what are solar panels, and how do they work? Solar panels seem like a magical sheet of dark-colored material that transforms light into energy. In reality, that’s not far from the truth.
In short, portable solar panels work by absorbing photons from the sun’s light, which displace electrons in the cells, and those electrons run along thin metal lines that go to a device called a solar charge controller which converts those electrons into storable energy in a battery.
What Are Portable Solar Panels?
Portable panels are most often used with solar generators or power stations. They are not designed to be used for 20+ years constantly and are mounted on rooftops or ground mounts similar to what most people see with houses that have solar installed. They often have a protective case, stand legs on the back, and usually don’t have the ability to connect a lot of them together for maximum power. They are meant to give a bit of power in remote sites where grid power is not available.
Portable solar panels come in varying wattages and sizes. They can vary quite a bit from the materials used, all the way to the wattage they produce. For example, there are portable solar panels that have hinges and handles built onto them but are essentially two small aluminum-framed typical solar panels. Two 100w solar panels that would normally be mounted on the roof of an RV or Van for solar power are hinged together. This makes a briefcase-style configuration that allows two solar panels to be combined together for easy portability.
Another form of portable solar panel is essentially a solar panel without an aluminum frame and tempered glass front. The cells adhere to a special backing material that is usually a high-grade, rigid, UV-protected plastic of one sort or another. The polycrystalline or monocrystalline cells are permanently mounted to the plastic backing. Then a special ETFE plastic coating that is 100% transparent goes on top of the cells to protect them from water and damage. Then the entire solar panel will often have a padded carry case with a handle on it which makes it easy to move around and take places.
Both types of these portable solar panels can be found at Powered Portable Solar. If you need help finding out which solar panel will work best for your situation you can always reach out to Powered Portable Solar’s contact page and get those questions answered.
Portable solar panels are not always necessarily the best option for portable power. They may be more convenient because they are often times smaller than traditional framed solar panels, but they may not weigh less. For example, a 200w Briefcase solar panel on average weighs 35 lbs, but the typical Rigid 200 solar panel only weighs 24lbs. 11 lbs makes a big difference when you have to move five to ten of them for a camping trip. The only major advantage the portable solar panel would give in this case is that it has built-in legs to stand the solar panels up so they get better power production from the sun.
Another thing to consider is the price. Portable solar panels cost much more than framed solar panels simply due to the manufacturing process. There are a lot more processes that have to happen in order to make a portable solar panel. The plastic backing production, lamination with cells, lamination of the ETFE layer for protection, sewing or attaching the protective case, installing the stand system, and so on.
With a traditional frame solar panel, a similar but thinner plastic backing is glued to the back of the cells, a sheet of tempered glass is laid over the cells, then an aluminum frame is formed around the glass and cells, and it’s done. It’s common to see portable solar panels cost around twice as much as a traditional frame.
So the real question is, why do you need a portable solar panel system? Is it to save on weight? Is it to have a smaller size? Is it to have a stand built into it? As far as all of those questions go, portable solar panels usually weigh about the same or more. They can be more compact especially if they are folding, blanket, or briefcase style. And they usually have a stand built into them so they’re easy to set up.
They cost twice as much and weigh more generally. So if those two reasons offset the other reasons then they’re a good investment. If there’s a way to have an affordable and easy-to-use stand for the traditional frame solar panel such as the Rigid 200 solar panel from Powered Portable Solar, then that is usually the best option. Because then you can get twice as much solar power for the same price, you can use a stand to put the solar panels upright, and as long as you have the space for the solar panel since it doesn’t fold down, then it’s a great option.
The answer to the question are portable solar panels worth investing in depends on the situation the solar panels need to be used in.
How Do Solar Panels Work?
There are two types of solar cells. The first type is polycrystalline which is an older style, blue in color, and is most often used in houses where there is lots of space. The second type is monocrystalline which is usually dark blue or black in color, and is often used on houses as well but portable solar panels are almost always this type. Monocrystalline cells can produce much more energy per square inch than polycrystalline which is why they’re ideal for portable solar panels.
Silicon, which is what sand is largely made of, is the main element used in making solar cells. It is basically melted and purified where it becomes a blue brittle flaky substance. Very similarly to how OSB sheets of plywood are formed, the silicon flakes are pressed and melted together to make the solar cell. They get the name polycrystalline because “poly” means many, and crystalline, meaning crystals, comes together to mean “many crystals.” That is why when you look at a polycrystalline cell you can see very different flakes together that are not uniform.
Monocrystalline solar cells are quite different. The silicon is heated and melted into a tight cylinder shape and extruded out of the press. Then, like cutting slices of bread, slices of the cell are cut off of the cylinder which gives a solar cell. Square shapes fit better together than circle shapes so the circled cell is then typically cut to make a square shape. Monocrystalline cells come from a single piece which is why they are called monocrystalline. “Mono” means once, and “crystalline,” meaning crystals, means it’s one crystal.
Other elements are used in the manufacturing process. These different layers of elements have essentially what looks like a cellular structure of a chain link fence. At every junction, there is either a spot filled with a molecule or an open space. As photons from the sun hit the different layers of the cells, they will hit electrons that are at the junctions and cause them to jump to an open spot. There are thin metal lines that cover solar panels every few millimeters. As the photons push the electrons around, the electrons eventually hit one of the thin metal lines which then directs them to go to the wire on the back of the solar panel. This is constantly happening at the speed of light.
By cables connected to the back of the solar panel that goes to a solar charge controller, the electrons will enter the charge controller and be converted from whatever voltage the solar panel is giving off and change to whatever voltage the battery uses. That is how the battery gets refilled full of usable electrons. Then an inverter is connected to the battery which converts battery voltage to wall outlet voltage so you can run a fridge, drill, lights, fans, or whatever needs to be run. Portable solar panels by themselves are not the full equation of getting power from the sun. That energy has to be captured by the sun, converted to battery power, then the battery power is converted to usable outlet power. Similar to filtering water from a river, the water has to go through a process to be safe to drink. In the same way, the electricity from the sun has to be adapted to be safe to use to run appliances.
Portable solar panels are a great option, but they come at a cost. As long as you’re aware of it upfront then you can make an informed decision on what you’d like to do for your scenario or situation. Be sure to reach out to Powered Portable Solar staff because there are many new innovations that can make life much easier and more affordable when doing these projects.
Solar panels use photons to charge electrons which are converted to usable, portable solar power. Simple, right? Probably not, but hopefully you have a better understanding of the process and how it all works.