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Explore Solar

Signs, like this one used to display the speed of traffic, are often powered by solar panels.

A digital sign equipped with a radar used to measure and display the speed of traffic is powered by a solar panel mounted above it.

The solar-electric Helios Prototype flying wing is shown near the Hawaiian islands of Niihau and Lehua during its first test flight on solar power. The 18-hour flight was a functional test of the aircraft's systems in preparation for an attempt to reach sustained flight at 100,000 feet.

The autonomous, solar powered, flying wing Helios flies over the islands of Hawaii during a test flight. The Helios project set new record for longest sustained flight and highest altitude flight thanks to the solar panels which cover the length of its flying wing design.

A picture of Mars rover Opportunity; still operational after 14 years, greatly exceeding its 90 day mission thanks to quality engineering, and the power of solar energy.

The Martian Rover Opportunity rolls across the barren red, rocky landscape of Mars gathering data 14 years after its expected life time. The power provided by the solar array mounted to the top of the rover allows it to keep going, even through the harsh Martian winter.

The solar panels of the International Space Station are able to provide more power than the station uses at one time, so about 60% of it is used to charge the stations batteries which are used when the station is not in sunlight.

The International Space Station is pictured as space shuttle Atlantis approached the complex in 2011. The Space Stations massive solar arrays dwarf the surrounding structures and provide power for all the research that takes place on the station.

The ISS is a habitable vehicle in a low Earth orbit that serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory. With more than an acre of solar arrays powering the station, the ISS is the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon.

The International Space Station, launched in 1998, has continued to aid scientists in their research thanks to the power provided by its extensive solar array.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus lab module, launched on Feb. 7, 2008 continues to provide scientists with the tools they need to do research beyond Earth's atmosphere ten years later.

NASA astronaut Rex Walheim works outside the European Space Agency's Columbus lab during the International Space Station Module's tenth anniversary in space.

Not all photovoltaic cells are rigid squares of silicon. These flexible solar cells allow engineers to power all kinds of new devices with renewable energy in places you might not expect.

A researcher demonstrates the flexibility of a group of solar cells.

Solar panels allow the communications satellites used in wireless communications devices to operate in the Earth’s orbit for decades at a time. These satellites allow us to use tools like GPS, cell phones, internet, television, radio, etc… all over the world.

A communications satellite orbits the Earth using the power provided by the solar panels mounted to the top and sides.

Solar panels can be used to power exterior lighting, saving money and reducing the number of power lines that have to be connected.

a pair of solar panels wired to a flood light

Solar panels are a great way for homeowners to save money on their utility bills, and increase the overall value and marketability of a house.

a house with solar panels mounted to the roof

Solar panels can be placed in brownfield land that is otherwise not useful like the area around the nuclear power plant pictured above. This means we can get even more power in places that aren’t safe for other purposes.

a field of solar panels with a pair of cooling towers in the background

Solar photovoltaic systems change sunlight into electricity.

The solar panel in your Solar Power Kit is made up of several photovoltaic (PV) cells.  Each PV cell can absorb light energy from the sun. That energy moves electrons to the surface of the cell. These moving electrons flow through conductors to produce electricity.  The PV cells are connected in the solar PV panel.  A solar array composed of connected solar panels can be large enough to produce electricity for a house or building. Some PV power plants have large arrays that cover many acres to produce electricity for thousands of homes.

Small PV panels in calculators have been common for many years, and PV cells have become especially useful for providing electricity in places that are not near conventional sources. Solar powered traffic signs can be placed where there is not existing wiring and can also be easily moved.  Solar panels composed of many solar cells have been used in space to power satellites since 1958.

According to a 2017 study by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), The Solar Foundation, and Generation 180, a clean energy nonprofit nearly 5,500 schools have solar installations.  These total 910 megawatts of solar capacity are enough to power 190,000 homes.

Advantages of using solar:

  • Solar systems do not produce greenhouse gases.
  • Solar systems are quiet.
  • Solar systems can be any size and can be easily expanded.
  • Solar systems can be installed wherever there is sun and can be easily moved.

Disadvantages of using solar:

  • Solar PV systems need sunlight to produce electricity. They do not produce electricity at night and they produce less on cloudy days.
  • Some of the materials used to manufacture PV cells are toxic so their use and disposal is regulated in the U.S.
  • Solar panels take up space.  The solar system for a house may cover all of the roof and a community solar array could cover several acres.


Tips and Techniques

General Tips

Avoid Short-Circuiting:

Don’t let your positive and negative lines touch each other or you will create a short circuit, and your circuit will not work.

Tape is an insulator:

Regular tape, unlike the copper tape, does not transmit an electric current. This means that if there is tape in between the copper tape and your electric components, your circuit will not work.

Tape Wires down Securely:

Make sure you tape everything to the copper tape securely. If the LED or solar panel doesn't have a good connection to the copper tape, your circuit will not work correctly.

One-sided copper tape:

The copper tape used in this activity has an adhesive that is not conductive. This means that only the outer side of the tape can be used to build your circuit.

Keep your solar panels clean:

Dirty solar panels capture less light, and generate less power. Keep your solar panels clean by wiping the top of them with a wet rag.

Explore Series and Parallel Circuits:

If you have more than one solar panel, try using more than one of them at a time. Do the LEDs get brighter? How many LEDs can you power at a time? How many different ways can you connect the solar panels to an LED?

Solar House Tips

Preparing the solar panel:

Cut the white connector off the leads from the solar panel and strip away a little of the insulation so the metal ends of the wires are exposed.

Folding the house:

Score the fold lines to make crisp folds. Before folding use a ruler and a plastic knife (a ball point pen that doesn’t write also works) to make an impression along each fold line.

Solar panel wires:

We recommend that you plan where you will run the wires from the solar panel down and into the house ahead of time. One easy way to do it is to tuck them under the roof before you finish attaching it to the house.

Solar Car Tips

Avoid seizing up the motor with glue:

If glue gets inside the metal housing of the motor it may seize up, preventing the motor from turning.

Reversing the motor:

You can connect the black wires and red wires to make the motor spin clockwise, or switch the wires to make the motor spin counter clockwise.

More Power:

You can try connecting more than one solar panel to your motor to make your car go faster.

Activities and More!

Solar House Activities

Power Grid Activity

Explore the power grid with this fun paper circuit model!

Power Grid Activity PDF

Minecraft Creeper

Build your own Minecraft creeper with glowing LED eyes!

Minecraft Creeper Activity PDF

Light up Birthday Card

Light up your friend's special day with one of these glowing birthday cards!

Light up Birthday Card PDF

Blank Light up Card PDF

Light up Paper House

Build your own light up LED house.

Light up Paper House PDF

Solar Powered Car

Design and Build a Solar Powered Car that travels in a straight line when outdoors in sunlight.

Solar Powered Car PDF

Learn More

The Story of Solar Energy
DOE Solar Animations Including Sunlight to Electricity Movie
US DOE Solar Decathlon
Energy 101: Solar PV Video
How Stuff Works: LED
University of Illinois Celebrated - LED : 50 Years
50 Years of LED Technology: Wired Magazine
The Electronics Club: LEDs
The Learning Circuit
Cyber Resilient Energy Delivery Consortium