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Glossary of Solar Energy Terms

A

Alternating current (AC)
Electrical current in which the direction of the flow is reversed at frequent intervals, approximately 100 to 200 times per second, or 50 to 60 cycles per second (50/60 Hz).

Alternator
A device that produces alternating current (AC) electricity, either through a motor or other sources, such as water and wind power.

Ammeter
A device that is used to measure current flow in an electrical circuit

Ampere / Amp (A)
The unit for the electric current

Amp-hour (Ah)
The amount of electrical energy related to the flow of current of one ampere for one hour.  Amp hours measure the amount of energy stored into a battery, commonly rated in Ah.

Array
A series of solar electric (or pv) modules connected in a system

B

Battery bank
A group of batteries connected together to store energy for a solar electric (or pv) system.  This provides a back-up source of power in case added power or back-up power is needed to supplement the pv system.

Battery capacity
The amount of total ampere-hours (Ah) a battery could provide when fully charged.

Battery cycle life
The amount of times a battery is able to discharge and recharge in a life cycle.

Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV)
Designing and integrating solar electric (or pv) systems within the structure of a building as part of the overall fabric to improve cost benefits and aesthetics.

C

Cell
The unit of a pv module or battery, providing the materials to produce electricity.

Cell efficiency
The amount of electrical energy a photovoltaic cell can produce as a percentage of the total energy of sunlight falling upon the cell.

Charge controller
A device used in battery-based pv systems that controls the flow of current to and from the battery system and monitors overall system performance, protecting the batteries from overcharge as well as over discharge.

Circuit
A system of conductors providing a path for electricity.

Circuit breaker
A device that shuts down power when sensing an overload of current.

Combiner box
A box connecting multiple solar panels into a system.

Conductor
Material that is used to transfer electricity, typically through wires.

Conduit
A pipe or enclosure to protect electrical cables and wires

Controller
Also known as a Charge Controller.  A device regulating the flow of current to and from a battery system as part of a battery-based solar electric (or pv) system.

Current
The flow of electric charge between two points, measured in amps.

D

Diode
An electronic device allowing current flow in only one direction

Direct current (DC)
Electrical current that flows in only one direction, varying in magnitude.  Produced as the initial form of electrical current from a solar panel.

Disconnect
A safety switch used to disconnect the components within a solar electric (or pv) system.

E

Electric current
The flow of electrons measure in amps.

Electrical grid
A sophisticated network distributing electricity across an expanded area.
Electricity
The movement of electrons that are produced by a voltage through a conductor.

Energy audit
A survey of energy usage to determine methods to reduce overall consumption.

F

Frequency
Number of cycles per unit time within a complete waveform, usually measured in cycles per second or hertz (Hz).  Electrical devices in the USA require 60 Hz.

G

Gel-type battery
Lead acid battery where the electrolyte is immobilized in a gel.  Typically used in mobile installations or where the location may have movement.

Gigawatt (gW)
One billion watts, or one million kilowatts, or one thousand megawatts.

Grid Connected, or Grid-Tied system           
A “grid-connected” solar electric (or pv) system generates its own electricity and feeds its excess power into the utility grid.

H

Hertz (Hz)
The frequency of electrical current measured in cycles per second.

I

Interconnect
A conductor providing an electrical connection between solar cells.

Inverter           
This is a complex electronic based power product that converts DC power into AC power and is required for solar power systems.

J

K

Kilowatt (kW)
A unit of electrical power, or 1,000 watts.

kWh           
An abbreviation for kilowatt-hours. One kWh represents 1,000 watts over a period of one hour. Electricity rates are most commonly expressed in cents per kilowatt-hour.

L

M

Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT)
A function found in inverters and controllers that match array output to the voltage of the battery or grid, delivering greater performance.

Megawatt (mW)           
An abbreviation for megawatt. This term is used to measure the power of solar systems. 1 MW = 1,000 kW.

Micro-grid
Small-scale, local power production within neighborhoods and communities.

Module           
Describes a unit composed of several solar cells that can be electrically connected, encapsulated in tempered glass and framed. Otherwise known as a solar electric panel, solar panel, or pv panel.

Monocrystalline           
Silicon that is pulled as a single crystal. The internal crystalline structure is completely homogenous, which can be recognized by an even external coloring.

Multicrystalline
Material composed of variously oriented and small individual crystals.  Less-efficient material than monocrystalline products.

N

National Electrical Code (NEC)
USA code for electrical installations, necessary for solar installations, especially to gain approval and certifications for tax incentives and rebates.

National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA)
USA trade association setting standards for levels of protection for electrical accessories such as junction boxes.

Net Metering           
Net-metering allows the solar electric system to send excess electricity back through the electric meter to the utility. The meter actually runs backwards, with the utility crediting the excess power produced at rates varying based on municipality and state incentives or laws.

O

Off-grid system, or Independent standalone system           
When generated energy is stored in batteries and then subsequently used. These systems are not connected to the utility grid.

Ohm
Resistance between two points of a conductor.

P

Panel
Term for solar electric (or pv) device, also called a module.

Peak load
Maximum usage of electrical power within a given period of time, usually one day.

Photon
A particle of light acting as an individual unit of energy

Photovoltaics            (PV)
A physical effect causing a voltage to be generated across two electrical poles of a semiconductor plate and allowing current to flow when connected to a receiver. Photo (Greek) = photos: light; Volt = unit of electrical potential Voltage through light.  Also referred as solar electric

Polycrystalline           
This is a crystalline structure of silicon where several crystals form in a mold. Polycrystalline cells can be recognized by a visible grain, a “metal flake effect”.

Power
Rate of work expressed in Watts.

PV
Abbreviation for Photovoltaic

Q

R

Rectifier
A device that converts AC into DC within a battery charger or converter.

Resistance (R)
Material that resists the flow of electric current, measured in ohms.

S

Semiconductor
Material with an electrical conductivity in between metal and an insulator.  Semiconductors in PV cells include silicon, gallium arsenide, copper indium diselinde and cadmium telluride.

Series
A way to connect pv cells or panels by connecting positive leads to negative leads to increase overall voltage, typically connected through wires.

Silicon           
The basic material used to make solar cells. It is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, after oxygen.

Sine wave
Waveform in which one variable is proportional to the sine of the other, ideally used for sensitive appliances such as TVs and radios.

Smart meter
An updated electric meter showing the varying price of electricity and usage, allowing consumers to become more informed and make wiser decisions.

Solar cell
Smallest basic solar electric device that generates electricity when exposed to sunlight

Solar thermal
Power using sunlight to heat water or fluid for household usage or to drive a motor or turbine.

Square wave inverter
Simplest and least expensive type of inverter, producing the lowest quality of power.

Stand-alone (or Off-grid) system           
When generated energy is stored in batteries and then subsequently used. These systems are not connected to the utility grid.

Surge capacity
Capability of an inverter or generator to deliver instantaneous high currents when starting devices such as motors.

T

Thin film
A solar module constructed with sequential layers of thin-film semiconductor materials.  A newer technology that is growing rapidly due top performance at lower costs.

Tracking array
A pv array that follows the path of the sun to maximize energy production.

Transformer or Autotransformer
A device that converts low-voltage electricity into higher voltage levels.

Trickle charge
A low level charge that helps maintain a cell or battery charge condition.

True sine wave inverter, or Pure sine wave inverter
Inverter producing utility-quality sine wave power.

U

V

Volt (V)
Unit of measure of the force or pressure, given the electrons in an electric circuit.

W

Wafer           
A sawn silicon disc, used as the starting point for manufacturing a solar cell.

Watt (W)
Unit of electrical power done in a unit of time.

Watt-hour (Wh)
Unit of energy equal to one watt of power being used for one hour

Waveform
Shape of a wave or pattern representing a vibration, characterizing an AC current or voltage output.

X

Y

Z

 


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