Light from the sun strikes the solar panels. In general, the brighter and more direct the sunlight, the more power will be produced. The best conditions for solar panels are when they face the sun directly and have no shade or other obstructions.
The solar panel converts sunlight into direct current (DC) power. Most solar panels have two layers of silicon. Particles of solar energy (photons) strike the top layer of silicon and free electrons from the molecular structure. These free electrons then move to the lower layer of silicon, where they are carried away via wires.
The inverter converts DC power into AC (alternating current). Solar panels, like common household batteries, create direct current power. This means that one wire will have a positive and the other has a negative charge. Most of our household electronics, however, use alternating current, in which each of the two wires switches rapidly between having a positive and a negative charge. In order to convert from one form to the other, the electricity is passed through a device called an inverter. It is a small box that can usually fit right beside the electrical meter on the side of the house.
Solar electricity is fed through the electric meter and into the property. At this point, the solar panels contribute directly to the electricity that the home uses. This electricity cannot be stored, so if more is generated by the solar panels than is needed, the power is sold back to the electric utility and the electric meter runs backwards. This effect is called net metering.
Net metering tends to allow customers to offset their most expensive electricity. Most utilities charge either by the time of use or by a tiered system. In time of use policies, the more expensive time period is during the day, which happens to be when solar panels generate all of their power. Under tiered rates, net metering allows customers to sell back electricity from their highest, most expensive tiers first.
Different states have different net metering policies. In general, the meter will run backwards only as far as it had already run forwards; in other words, it will never go past zero. Customers should not expect to get a check from the electric utility if they generate more solar energy in a month than the electricity that they use.