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What do we mean by photovoltaics? First used in about 1890, the word has two parts: photo, derived from the Greek word for light, and volt, relating to electricity pioneer Alessandro Volta. So, photovoltaics could literally be translated as light-electricity. And that’s what photovoltaic (PV) materials and devices do — they convert light energy into electrical energy (Photoelectric Effect), as French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered as early as 1839.
Commonly known as solar cells, individual PV cells are electricity-producing devices made of semiconductor materials. PV cells come in many sizes and shapes — from smaller than a postage stamp to several inches across. They are often connected together to form PV modules that may be up to several feet long and a few feet wide. Modules, in turn, can be combined and connected to form PV arrays of different sizes and power output.
The size of an array depends on several factors, such as the amount of sunlight available in a particular location and the needs of the consumer. The modules of the array make up the major part of a PV system, which can also include electrical connections, mounting hardware, power-conditioning equipment, and batteries that store solar energy for use when the sun isn’t shining.
Did you know that PV systems are already an important part of our lives? Simple PV systems provide power for many small consumer items, such as calculators and wristwatches. More complicated systems provide power for communications satellites, water pumps, and the lights, appliances, and machines in some people’s homes and workplaces. Many road and traffic signs along highways are now powered by PV. In many cases, PV power is the least expensive form of electricity for performing these tasks.