Solar Energy Primer for Beginners

In this course, you will

  • Discover solar energy's current role and future potential in the global electricity supply

  • Learn about the current photovoltaic technologies and those in development

  • Estimate how many solar modules are needed to produce a certain amount of energy at a specific location

  • Discover how cost-competitive solar PV is compared to other renewable and non-renewable electrical power plants

What you'll learn

In this engineering PDH course, we'll answer the following questions

  • Global Deployment

    What is the role of solar energy in the global electricity supply today? What role will it play in the future?

  • PV Solar Power Potential

    Could the world run on solar power? How does the energy we receive from the sun compare to other renewable and non-renewable sources of energy? How much land would we need to run the world on solar power?

  • Principle of Operation

    How does a solar cell produce electricity? What is the photovoltaic effect? How does high ambient temperature affect the performance of a solar panel or solar module?

  • Solar Cell Types & Efficiencies

    What are the different types of solar cells that exist today? What are their efficiencies? How is the efficiency of a solar cell measured? Is there a theoretical limit for the efficiency of a solar cell? What are scientists doing to overcome it?

  • Estimation

    How can one estimate how many solar modules are needed to produce a given amount of power?

  • Solar Power Plant Cost

    What is the average cost of a solar PV power plant globally? What is the average cost in Canada? In the USA? How does it compare to other renewable and non-renewable energy sources?


  • Duration : 2 hours

    This course allows participants to earn 2 engineering PDH (professional development hours).

  • Level: Introductory

    This course is suitable for beginners in the field of solar PV. More advanced participants will benefit from this overview of the solar power world statistics, solar photovoltaic technologies, solar cell types, solar cell efficiencies and costs of solar power plants around the globe.

  • Audience

    Engineers • Solar Enthusiasts • Anyone wanting to learn about solar PV's current status and potential

  • Requirements

    No prerequisites needed

  • Format: 100% online

    Start instantly and learn at your own schedule • On-demand video • 30-day access from mobile telephone and computer

  • Shareable Certificate: Yes

    Earn a shareable completion certificate indicating that you have earned 2 engineering PDH (Professional Development Hours).

Solar energy will transform electricity production in the next 10-20 years. Learn how in this engineering PDH course.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of solar energy is, 

"Produced or operated by the action of the sun's light or heat."

Amazingly, this simple concept has inspired dozens of engineering innovations, from passive solar building design to semi-transparent perovskite solar cells. The reason for this is the sheer abundance of energy we receive from the sun. 

Read more

 Edison solar energy quote

In this 2-hour engineering PDH course, we will answer the following questions in detail.

1. How much energy do we receive from the sun?

2. How does a photovoltaic solar cell produce electricity?

3. What different types of cells exist today? How efficient are they?

4. How much does solar power cost?

5. How does the cost of solar power plants compare to other electricity-producing technologies?

6. What are the disadvantages of solar energy?

Here's a summary of some key points.

How much energy do we receive from the sun?

The Earth receives 174 petajoules of energy from the sun every second. Over a year, enough solar energy falls on the Earth's surface to replace all of today's global energy production. Its potential surpasses by far the combined energy output of coal, oil, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, and biofuels. Photovoltaic systems allow us to tap into this abundant resource by converting solar energy into electricity. In 2018, solar PV systems produced 2.4% of the global electricity supply, generating 505 GW worldwide and growing.

Solar PV World Electricity Production by Country

 Solar PV in World


According to Eicke Weber, Director of Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems,

Between 2030 and 2050, we will see 10-30% of global energy demand covered by solar PV (photovoltaics). Right now, we are in an embryonic state compared to where we are going in a few decades. 

In this course, we will provide an overview of the use of solar energy for electricity production, specifically with solar photovoltaic technologies (also known as solar PV).

Back to questions

How does a photovoltaic solar cell produce electricity?

The solar cell is made of a semiconductor, usually silicon that has been "doped" with an agent that has the propensity to either gain or lose electrons. Examples of doping agents are phosphorus and boron.

Phosphorous-doped silicon can lose electrons and is known as an N-type semiconductor. Since an N-type semiconductor wants to lose electrons, it acquires a positive charge.

On the other hand, boron-doped silicon has a shortage of electrons, or an abundance of "holes," and is known as a P-type semiconductor. Since P-type silicon wants to lose holes and gain electrons, it acquires a negative charge.

Joining these two types of silicon forms a PN junction, the foundation of the solar cell.

The PN Junction of a Solar Cell

Solar cell PN junction

Source: Physics Stack exchange 

An internal electric field (E) forms at the junction. The force of the electric prevents the free charges found in the P-type and N-type silicon from recombining.

When a photon hits the solar cell, it gives its energy to an electron in the crystal lattice. This energy excites an electron from the P-type silicon and "kicks" it into the conduction band, where it is free to move around within the semiconductor. The difference in energy between the valence band and the conduction band is known as the bandgap.

When the electron leaves the P-type silicon, it leaves its place empty, creating a "hole." An electron from neighbouring atom moves into the "hole," leaving another hole behind.

In this way, holes propagate throughout the crystal lattice. As this happens, electricity begins to flow in the circuit. This phenomenon is known as the photovoltaic effect.

Ideally, a photon with an energy equal to that of the bandgap hits the solar cell and excites an electron from the valence band to the conduction band.

Note that different materials have different bandgap energies, as shown in this table.

Bandgap Energies of Various Semiconductors Solar Cell Bandgap Energies


Most solar panels today are made of silicon solar cells. However, most photons hitting the Earth have greater energies than the bandgap of silicon. The solar cell still absorbs these high-energy photons, but their "extra energy" is converted into heat rather than electricity. When this happens, the efficiency of the solar cell decreases.

Back to questions

What different types of cells exist today? 

How efficient are solar cells at converting solar energy into electricity?

Researchers are continually working to improve the efficiency of solar cells. Each new wave of solar cells gives rise to a new generation of photovoltaic devices.

Today, there exist three generations. They are,

  1. Crystalline Silicon (Monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar cells)
  2. Thin film
  3. Emerging PV

Commercially available mono and multi-crystalline silicon solar cells have efficiencies of around 18-23%. 

Second-generation solar cells, or thin-film solar cells, include amorphous, cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) solar cells. In the lab, both CIGS and CdTe have achieved cell efficiencies of 18% while the efficiency of amorphous-Si is only 13%.

The third generation of solar cells includes several thin-film technologies often described as "emerging photovoltaics." Most third-generation solar cells have yet to be commercialized and are still in the research and development phase. Today, the efficiency of this type of solar cell is about 10%.

Solar Cell Efficiencies

Solar cell efficiencies

Source: IRENA Letting in the Light 

An example of emerging photovoltaics is the Perovskite solar cell. It is based on low-cost materials and shows much promise in terms of efficiency and cost.

Perovskite solar cell efficiency under laboratory conditions has improved dramatically, increasing from 14% to 22% in recent years.

Here is a picture of a perovskite solar module printed by inkjet on a flexible substrate. An external LED shows that the module can generate power under scattered light conditions.

Perovskite Solar Module

Perovskite solar cellSource: Saule Technologies 


Back to questions

How much does solar power cost?

When analyzing the cost of any utility, investors look at the "Levelized Cost of Energy" (LCOE). The LCOE is the ratio between the lifetime cost of the energy utility and its energy production. In short, the LCOE is the price the project must earn per megawatt-hour to break even.

This figure shows the range of LCOE for PV projects from 2010 to 2017, taking into account variations in the costs and sizes of individual projects. Between 2010 and 2017, the global weighted average LCOE fell 72%, from 0.36 USD/kWh to 0.10 USD/kWh (360 USD /MWh to 100 USD/MWh).

Cost of Solar PV Has Dropped 72% between 2010 - 2017

Solar Power Plant Costs

Source: IRENA Renewable Power Generation Costs 


The projected reduction in installation costs could result in an average 59% decrease in LCOE of commercial-scale PV projects between 2015 and 2025. By 2025, the global weighted average LCOE could be as low as 0.03 USD/kWh (30 USD/MWh).

Back to questions

How does the cost of solar power plants compare to other electricity-producing technologies?

According to IRENA's 2018 report, "Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2017", solar PV utility-scale plant costs are comparable with other renewable sources of energy as well as fossil fuel-fired plants.

This figure shows the global weighted average LCOE of each technology, excluding any subsidies.

Average LCOE of Solar PV is Comparable to Fossil-Fuel Fired Power Plants

Source: IRENA Renewable Power Generation Costs


Notice that in 2017, the global average LCOE of solar was well within the range of fossil fuel-fired power plants for many regions around the world, as shown in this figure. It shows the regional average LCOE of each technology and excludes any subsidies. In Asia, Oceania, North America, and Europe, the regional average LCOE falls within the range of fossil-fuel-fired power plants based on 2017 data. The LCOE of solar ranges from 9.5 cents US per kWh in Asia to a high of 17 cents US per kWh in Africa and Eurasia.

Back to questions

What are the disadvantages of solar energy?

Different electricity sources also have different environmental costs. Today, the world is focused on carbon emissions and greenhouse gases (GHGs), often presented in tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Solar power plants generate few  emissions, whereas other types of generation can produce substantially more.

However, reliability is a significant concern, as system operators are mandated to ensure supply meets demand at all times. Intermittent sources of power, such as wind and solar, must be backed up by other sources of generation. Which brings us to the topic of an upcoming course - energy storage. But first, we invite you to preview the first video of this engineering PDH course below.

Back to questions


Video Lesson Sample

Watch Intro Video

The Role of Solar PV in the Global Electricity Supply


What engineers are saying about this course

I am very satisfied with how the information was delivered in this course! It is concise and efficient. I highly recommend anyone that is fascinated with renewable energy to take this Solar Energy course.

- JM of Manitoba, Canada

Excellent! Very instructive. Well made. Bravo!

- GR from Quebec, Canada

Great course.

- JM from Quebec, Canada

It was really helpful to understand solar energy in terms of efficiency and cost.

- RN from Manitoba, Canada


- SS from Manitoba, Canada

Very interesting and relevant topic! I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the subject.

- AG from Manitoba, Canada

Easy to understand

- JM of Quebec, Canada

The course was great, learned a lot about Solar Energy

- KJ of Alberta, Canada

You rock! I just love it. Keep up the hard work!!!

- CL of Georgia, USA

Keep going with advertising this technology to make our planet cleaner!

- DB of Manitoba, Canada


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Chemical Engineer

Marianne Salama, Eng., MBA

Marianne is the president and founder of iPolytek, a company whose mission is to provide training on the latest developments in engineering and relate these innovations to the most pressing issues of our time: climate change, water quality, air quality, and sustainability.

Marianne is a chemical engineer with over 18 years of experience in the field of air and water treatment using ozone. She is a graduate of McGill University (B.Eng.) and holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the John Molson School of Business. A member of the Order of Engineers of Quebec (OIQ) and the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, Marianne writes about a variety of subjects, including environmental technologies, renewable resources, and the energy transition.

" For me, engineering is about making the world a better place: one idea, one design, one project at a time. "

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are you an approved professional development course provider in Canada?

    Approval is not required. Canadian engineering boards do not approve, recommend or endorse any professional development course providers or courses.

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    Approval is not required except in the following states: Florida, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, and Indiana.

    iPolytek has not yet sought to be approved in these states. Therefore, engineers from these state should not use our courses to accumulate professional development hours. If you are from one of these states and would like to take our courses in the future, let us know.

  • How long do I have to complete the course once I have purchased it?

    You have 30 days to complete this course.

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    The engineering boards of Florida, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, and Indiana require pre-approval of professional development course providers.

    iPolytek has not yet sought to be approved in these states. Therefore, engineers from these state cannot use our courses to accumulate professional development hours.

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