What happens to solar power when it isn’t sunny? A simple question with an amazing answer.

Of course, people would not want a solar panel installed in their house and the TV suddenly start to flicker while there is a little cloud in the sky and they have to read books under candle lights. Making solar power a viable option is one of the first things scientists and engineers must figure out, even if the sun stays or disappears after some clouds.

Solar and wind power plant

When the first devices that could capture the sun’s energy were invented, they weren’t very efficient.

Much like touch screens or video chatting or Dorito-flavored taco shells, solar power is one of those perfect ideas that took a while to get just right. Believe it or not, the earliest solar devices were introduced in the 1800s.

In 1878, Augustin Mouchot invented a device that could freeze water using the concentrated power of the sun. It was a cool experiment but not exactly reasonable or viable options for large-scale energy production.

Mouchot won a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris for his invention, but his device was gigantic, and coal was quickly becoming the go-to for efficient energy, so it didn’t catch on.

The other downside to his invention? The solar-powered water-freezer only worked on (you guessed it) sunny days. But, that was 1878. Things have changed a lot since then.

Over the last century, the efficiency and feasibility of solar power has dramatically increased, and it’s getting better every day.

Just look at this fun, easy-to-read chart!

I know, I know, it’s a lot to take in. Just know that it’s showing you that since 1975, we’ve gotten better and better at efficiently converting the sun’s rays into energy that can power our homes, businesses, and even a few cars and planes.

So how does solar energy keep providing power when the sun goes down?

The answer is pretty simple: storage.

The answer is pretty simple: storage.

The way they do it is pretty amazing. Photons (aka light particles) hit the solar panel really hard — so hard that electrons (aka what electricity is made of) get knocked loose. Then the solar panel guides those loose electrons into a battery or superconductor that can store them. If an area has a reliable electricity grid, homeowners can just hook their solar panels right up to it. For them, nothing changes from their normal source of power except (usually) a smaller electricity bill.           

A lot of people don’t realize that going solar doesn’t have to mean going “off grid,” says Dan Whitson, solar manager for Green Audit USA in Long Island, N.Y

The grid is pretty reliable here, so battery options aren’t necessarily cost-effective on Long Island,” Whitson explained over the phone. “But that’s something we have to explain to homeowners that, you know, you’re still going to be connected to the grid even though you’ve gone solar.”

If there are solar panels on your roof, it’s not like your PlayStation is plugged directly into them. The solar panels run into your regular power lines and help offset some of the energy cost, or they run into a box that will store the electricity, quite literally, for a rainy day.