How Solar Lights Generate Electricity

You have heard it for years now: solar lights are effective, and they are excellent alternatives when it comes to generating electricity. However, one question bugs you: how do solar lights generate electricity in the first place?

Solar lights generate electricity by using solar cells that turn sunlight into electricity. It can use either solar photovoltaic power or concentrating solar power. The light particles, called photons, bounce around and knock electrons free from atoms. Those electrons flow towards the positive terminal, creating electricity. Then, it stores the newly created electricity inside batteries made out of lead-acid, lithium-ion, or cadmium. 

This article will explain what comprises solar lights, how solar lights produce electricity, and how solar path lights work at night. It will also talk about the two solar technologies that convert sunlight into electricity and the most common solar light types available right now.

What Are Solar Lights Made Of?

Before figuring out how solar lights generate electricity, it is best to understand the components that make up a solar light in the first place. Knowing these components will help you identify them and connect how each piece works on making the other piece function.

Solar lights consist of a panel, a light fixture, an energy management system, a battery, some poles, a driver, and a controller. These components interact with each other and work on generating electricity from the sunlight.

Solar Lights

A solar light panel contains solar cells, tempered glass, an aluminum frame, and multiple layers of encapsulation. The panel makes it possible to soak up the sun’s energy. Once the sunlight reaches the panel, the energy is converted and stored within the rechargeable battery for immediate or later use.

Light Fixture

Meanwhile, a solar light’s light fixture contains Light Emitting Diode (LED), which functions as a light. It is cost-effective and energy-efficient to use LEDs since they consume less electricity compared to other light types.

Energy Management System

An energy management system is one of the most crucial components of solar lights. It controls the power transferred and used between the light fixture, battery, and solar panel.


Similarly, a battery is just as important in the best solar landscape lights because it allows solar lights to be used even without the sun. As long as the rechargeable battery has stored enough energy from the sun, you should be good to go.

You will often encounter batteries made from lead-acid, sealed lead-acid, or cadmium. However, you may also come across lithium-ion or saltwater batteries. 

Lead batteries are the cheapest and most convenient despite their short lifespans. Meanwhile, lithium-ion batteries are lightweight and compact. And saltwater batteries are environment-friendly with little heavy metal components.

Structural Poles

Meanwhile, poles are just as they are: they hold up the solar lights at various places. You will see plenty of poles made of wood, concrete, or powder-coated steel. 

Driver and Controller

The driver and controller of solar lights are actually parts of the energy management system. The driver converts the voltage of a solar light’s electricity into something compatible with its fixture, while the controller is responsible for regulating panel and battery power loads. 

The controller prevents battery overcharge and halts reverse-current flows. Consequently, it helps the drivers figure out the optimal light level adjustments.

How Do Solar Lights Generate Electricity?

Solar energy is generally created when a photovoltaic occurrence takes effect. Solar lights have photovoltaic panels, better known as solar cells, that transform the sun’s energy into electricity. 

Layers and layers of crystalline silicon often make up the solar cells. This, together with chemicals that produce layers of positively-charged spaces and negatively-charged electrons, makes the conversion of solar energy to electrical energy possible.

How Solar Lights Generate Electricity

As sunlight goes through the panels, the negatively-charged electrons push themselves towards the positively-charged areas. Once this happens, the spaces shift the electron stream as direct currents of electricity.

Then, the wires within the solar cells transfer the electricity where it can be used immediately or stored in the battery for later use.

If you want to visualize this process, check out TED-Ed’s incredible and short YouTube clip about how solar panels work:

How Solar Lights Generate Electricity With Little Sunlight

Solar panels use photons to generate electricity. They do not require any heat from the sunlight to actually work. This means that they do not need direct sunlight to create electricity. Photons can travel through certain objects, like water. It can even bend around objects. As long as the photovoltaic cells are getting photons, electrons are being knocked loose.

Photons are created in artificial light, as well. So you don’t need sunlight to create solar energy. Putting a solar panel under a spotlight or incandescent light will create electricity. Of course, it will not generate electricity as fast as direct sunlight. But it will work just fine.

Ultimately, solar panels work best in direct sunlight. So try to hang your solar lights in a position that gives the solar panels as much sunlight as possible. And make sure you keep them clean so that they are getting th e maximum amount of photons as possible

How Do Solar Lights Work at Night?

Solar lights work at night because their batteries stored converted sun energy to electrical energy. Solar lights stop converting sunlight almost automatically when the panels no longer receive enough sunlight.

Often, when the environment gets dark, a solar light’s photoreceptor detects the darkness and switches its lights on. The lights typically consist of LEDs, which are highly energy-efficient and can last long enough through the night.

Of course, how long solar lights last without any recharging from the sun depends on its battery’s capacity and how much solar energy had been stored in the first place.

Two Types of Solar Technologies

At present, two technologies can convert solar energy into electrical energy—first, photovoltaics or PV, and second, solar concentrating power of CSP. 

You will encounter PV often since it’s what you see within solar panels. On the other hand, you will only see CSP utilized within power plants instead of traditional homes.

Solar Photovoltaics

PV works through layered solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity. Once solar energy enters the panels, electrons shift and move around, which creates electricity. 

The converted electrical energy is then passed on through the solar light’s wires, where the electricity is either used immediately or stored within a battery.

If you would like to watch a clip about photovoltaics, check out energy’s brief YouTube clip:

Concentrating Solar Power

Solar lights with CSP work by using mirrors to concentrate solar energy into a receiving medium. Due to its size requirements and the massive amount of energy it produces, this solar technology is only often utilized industrially rather than residentially.

The receiving medium has a fluid that needs to heat up to a high temperature. The solar energy heats this fluid and creates thermal energy, which generates electrical energy.

If you would like to see a clear and concise explanation of CSP, visit Energy on YouTube:

Common Types of Solar Lights

Solar lights are perfect for outdoor use since it is more convenient to place them there and leave them be. Generally, they work automatically: gather sunlight, convert solar energy to electricity, and switch their lights once it gets dark.

The common types of solar lights available in the market at present are:

  • Solar pathway lights
  • Decorative outdoor lights
  • Solar spotlights
  • Solar floodlights
  • Outdoor solar lamps and motion lights
  • Solar Christmas lights
  • Solar post lights

You now know how solar lights generate electricity, but do you know which solar light is right for you? 

Pathway lights are great when it comes to lighting your path at night. Though outdoor lamps and solar motion lights can serve the same purpose. On the other hand, solar spotlights and decorative lights are more for aesthetic purposes than anything else.

Lastly, solar post lights and solar flood lights shine bright lights on areas. They are perfect if you need ample lighting in certain parts of your home.

Remember that some solar lights need you to switch it on and off manually. This may be because they are older models. Or they are meant to conserve the stored electricity. So, when picking a solar light, keep your needs and preferences in mind.

Final Thoughts

Solar lights generate electrical energy from solar energy by having its solar panels or cells react with the sunlight. Once a reaction happens, electrons shift around, transforming into electricity. Eventually, they either get used or stored within a solar light’s battery.

To best understand how solar energy transforms into electricity, it is wise to learn about the components that make up solar lights. Want more solar for your home? Convert your pond pump to a solar pond pump.


I'm trying to make the world a bit greener every day, whether that's through my day job or helping others make green choices for their homes.

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