Simply put, a solar panel works by allowing photons, or particles of light, to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity. Solar panels actually comprise many, smaller units called photovoltaic cells. A photovoltaic cell is basically a sandwich made up of two slices of semi-conducting material, usually silicon.
To work, photovoltaic cells need to establish an electric field. Much like a magnetic field, which occurs due to opposite poles, an electric field occurs when opposite charges are separated. To get this field, manufacturers mix silicon with other materials, giving each slice of the sandwich a positive or negative electrical charge.
When these two materials are placed side by side inside a solar cell, the n-type silicon’s spare electrons jump over to fill the gaps in the p-type silicon. This means that the n-type silicon becomes positively charged, and the p-type silicon is negatively charged, creating an electric field across the cell. Because silicon is a semi-conductor, it can act like an insulator, maintaining this imbalance.
As the photons smash the electrons off the silicon atoms, this field drives them along in an orderly manner, providing the electric current to power calculators, satellites and everything in between.