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Solar Cell, Module, Panel and Array: What's the Difference?

Don't get tripped up as you're shopping for home solar.

Detail of a solar panel.
Don't get tripped up on vocabulary when you're talking clean, solar energy.
Tvn Phph Prung Sakdi/EyeEm/Getty Images

Homeowners have continued to show a growing interest in solar power over recent years. In fact, US residential solar system installations increased by 19% in 2021, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. With solar power cheaper than utility supplied electricity, it is easy to see why homeowners are making the switch to this cheaper power source. But before you schedule installation of your new solar system, you should understand how it works. 

We'll explain how solar power works, including the difference between a solar cell, module, panel and array. 

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How does solar power work?

Simply put, solar power is created when solar radiation is absorbed and turned into electricity by photovoltaic panels.

Residential solar systems use PV panels, which are made up of solar cells that absorb sunlight. The absorbed sunlight creates electrical charges that flow within the cell and are captured by solar panel wiring. The electricity is then converted by an inverter into alternating current, which is the type of electrical current needed to power electronics and appliances that plug into your wall sockets. 

What's the difference between a solar cell, module, panel and array?

It may come as a surprise that solar systems consist of many working parts -- including cells and modules, or panels, which form arrays. An individual photovoltaic device is known as a solar cell. Due to its size, it produces 1 to 2 watts of electricity, but you can easily increase the power output by connecting cells, which makes up a module or panel. And if you have multiple modules or panels connected together, this is called an array.    

Now that you know how solar power works and the difference between a solar cell, module, panel and array, you're closer to deciding if solar power is ideal for you. 

Can I really save with solar power?  

One of the main things to consider before buying solar panels is the cost. A well-known fact about solar power is that it is good for the environment, but people also associate solar power with big savings. The initial cost associated with installing solar power can be high, on average costing between $15,000 and $25,000. So how exactly can you save money with solar power?

The cost of solar system installation can be recouped in about 6 to 9 years thanks to the annual savings on electricity. In addition to the annual savings on your energy bill, you can take advantage of rebates and tax credits like the residential solar energy tax credit, which will increase your federal income tax refund. If you qualify, you get a tax credit equal to 30% of the cost of the system. (That's a recent increase thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act just signed into law.)

While it may take some time to recoup the cost of a rooftop solar array, making an informed decision can help make the payback period shorter. Brush up on when ground-mounted solar panels make sense, the ins and outs of net metering, and the best angle and direction for solar panels. If you're ready to go solar, know what red flags to look out for in a sales pitch and how long installation will take. Not looking to buy? Check out how to go solar in smaller, cheaper steps.