Photovoltaic Technology Basics

Photovoltaic (PV) materials and devices convert sunlight into electrical energy, and PV cells are commonly known as solar cells. Photovoltaics can literally be translated as light-electricity.

First used in about 1890, “photovoltaic” has two parts: photo, derived from the Greek word for light, and volt, relating to electricity pioneer Alessandro Volta. And this is what photovoltaic materials and devices do—they convert light energy into electrical energy, as French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered as early as 1839.

Becquerel discovered the process of using sunlight to produce an electric current in a solid material. But it took more than another century to truly understand this process. Scientists eventually learned that the photoelectric or photovoltaic effect caused certain materials to convert light energy into electrical energy at the atomic level.

PV systems are already an important part of our daily lives. Simple PV systems provide power for small consumer items such as calculators and wristwatches. More complicated systems provide power for communications satellites, water pumps, and the lights, appliances, and machines in some homes and workplaces. Many road and traffic signs also are now powered by PV. In many cases, PV power is the least expensive form of electricity for these tasks.

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