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Photovoltaic cells

What is a photovoltaic cell and how does it fit in with solar energy?

solar cells

Credit: iStockphoto

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What are 'photovoltaics'?

Photovoltaics is the technology for building solar cells and making solar energy. In fact, a photovoltaic cell (PV cell) and a solar cell are the same thing; the only difference is that solar cells get their name when they start capturing energy from the sun.

The word photovoltaic comes from the Greek meaning light (photo) and electric (voltaic) and that's exactly what PV cells do - convert light into electricity.

PV cells create electricity by absorbing sunlight and using that energy to generate an electric current.

Why photovolatics?

PV electricity is becoming more important because of dwindling oil supplies and concerns over carbon emissions from fossil fuels. PV cells are a solution because they provide a sustainable alternative using something the Earth has in abundance - sunshine.

The production of PV cells has been doubling about every two years. This means that PV cells are the world's fastest growing energy technology.

If the technology is out there, why aren't I using it?

Good question, but the answer is simple - it's too expensive. While many people and companies use solar energy, it is too expensive to be mainstream. High prices make it unlikely the majority of people will switch to solar until the cost becomes the same as its cheaper, dirtier competitors.

There are also technical problems like PV cells not working at night: no sun, no electricity. However, scientists are working on this conundrum too.

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