Solar panel refers either to a photovoltaic module, a solar hot water panel, or to a set of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules electrically connected and mounted on a supporting structure. A PV module is a packaged, connected assembly of solar cells. Solar panels can be used as a component of a larger photovoltaic system to generate and supply electricity in commercial and residential applications. Each module is rated by its DC output power under standard test conditions (STC), and typically ranges from 100 to 320 watts. The efficiency of a module determines the area of a module given the same rated output – an 8% efficient 230 watt module will have twice the area of a 16% efficient 230 watt module. There are a few solar panels available that are exceeding 19% efficiency. A single solar module can produce only a limited amount of power; most installations contain multiple modules. A photovoltaic system typically includes a panel or an array of solar modules, an inverter, and sometimes a battery and/or solar tracker and interconnection wiring
Solar modules use light energy (photons) from the sun to generate electricity through the photovoltaic effect. The majority of modules use wafer-based crystalline silicon cells or thin-film cells based on cadmium telluride or silicon. The structural (load carrying) member of a module can either be the top layer or the back layer. Cells must also be protected from mechanical damage and moisture. Most solar modules are rigid, but semi-flexible ones are available, based on thin-film cells. These early solar modules were first used in space in 1958.
Electrical connections are made in series to achieve a desired output voltage and/or in parallel to provide a desired current capability. The conducting wires that take the current off the modules may contain silver, copper or other non-magnetic conductive transition metals. The cells must be connected electrically to one another and to the rest of the system. Externally, popular terrestrial usage photovoltaic modules use MC3 (older) or MC4 connectors to facilitate easy weatherproof connections to the rest of the system.
Bypass diodes may be incorporated or used externally, in case of partial module shading, to maximize the output of module sections still illuminated.
Some recent solar module designs include concentrators in which light is focused by lenses or mirrors onto an array of smaller cells. This enables the use of cells with a high cost per unit area (such as gallium arsenide) in a cost-effective way