Photovoltaic System Basics

A photovoltaic (PV), or solar electric system, is made up of several photovoltaic solar cells. An individual PV cell is usually small, typically producing about 1 or 2 watts of power. To boost the power output of PV cells, they are connected together to form larger units called modules. Modules, in turn, can be connected to form even larger units called arrays, which can be interconnected to produce more power, and so on. In this way, PV systems can be built to meet almost any electric power need, small or large.

Illustration of solar cells combined to make a module and modules combined to make an array.

The basic PV or solar cell produces only a small amount of power. To produce more power, cells can be interconnected to form modules, which can in turn be connected into arrays to produce yet more power. Because of this modularity, PV systems can be designed to meet any electrical requirement, no matter how large or how small.

By themselves, modules or arrays do not represent an entire PV system. Systems also include structures that point them toward the sun and components that take the direct-current electricity produced by modules and “condition” that electricity, usually by converting it to alternate-current electricity. PV systems may also include batteries. These items are referred to as the balance of system (BOS) components.

Combining modules with BOS components creates an entire PV system. This system is usually everything needed to meet a particular energy demand, such as powering a water pump, the appliances and lights in a home, or—if the PV system is large enough—all the electrical requirements of a community.