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Introduction to Photovoltaic Systems

Texas State Energy Conservation Office

This activity introduces students to the process of converting sunlight into electricity through the use of photovoltaics (solar cells). Students complete a reading passage with questions and an inquiry lab using small photovoltaic cells.

Activity takes about two 45-minute class periods. Additional materials are necessary.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 6 Cross Cutting Concepts, 7 Science and Engineering Practices


Solar Radiation
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Solar Energy
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Grade Level

High School (9-12)
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Activity could be modified to be used in a middle school environment.

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a

Energy Literacy

Other materials addressing:
4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
Other materials addressing:
4.5 Electricity generation.
Other materials addressing:
4.7 Different sources of energy have different benefits and drawbacks.
Other materials addressing:
6.5 Social and technological innovation.
Other materials addressing:
2.2 Sources of energy on Earth.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
Other materials addressing:
E) Organizing information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
C) Energy.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
Other materials addressing:
D) Technology.
3. Skills for Understanding and Addressing Environmental Issues:3.1 Skills for Analyzing and Investigating Environmental Issues:C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action
Other materials addressing:
C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Small photovoltaic cells must be purchased.
  • A digital multimeter can be used instead of separate DC ammeter and DC voltmeter.

About the Science

  • Comments from expert scientist:
    In the science section, the explanations are quite good, but not exactly correct. The light is not really absorbed by the semiconductor atoms. It is absorbed by the semiconductor material as a whole. A single atom would not have this absorption. Only the ensemble of atoms (like a giant molecule) absorbs. And the document says that "some of the photons" are absorbed. In fact, nearly all of the photons are absorbed --- over 95% in all cases I know.

    The article provides an outdated picture of the industry - it seems to be from the early 90's in its information content. About half of photovoltaic systems are now deployed are at utility fields (large) and not on residences. Very little of the deployment (I'm guessing 0.01%) is for the kind of niche and off-grid applications to which this article focuses about half its discussion of applications.

    Typical inverter efficiency is quoted at 80%. Reality is 94-97% today.

    Solar cells are said to make "electricity without creating any air or water pollution". This is true at the site of use, but the manufacture of the system could better be said to "produce minimal air or water pollution, far less than fossil fuel generation systems". No industrial products are entirely free of pollution.

  • Students investigate the effects of light intensity and frequency on the generation of electricity from a solar cell and the effects of temperature on solar cell efficiency.

About the Pedagogy

  • Pre-activity reading comes with a worksheet of comprehension questions and a worksheet of important vocabulary for the lesson.
  • Data summary and assessment questions provided.
  • Additional follow-up lab is provided.
  • Answer key is provided for the educator for all parts of activity.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Lab activity has easy-to-follow directions; data tables provided for all variables that will be tested.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

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