How Solar Works - Understanding The Differences

When the sun is shining, electricity travels from the panels through wires into a piece of equipment called an “inverter.” The inverter converts the DC electricity produced by the panels into the type of power your house uses (called Alternating Current, or AC). After the inverter converts the electricity, it then travels through a dedicated wire into your home’s electrical panel. From that point, all unused electricity generated by your solar panels travels back through the power lines and into the utility company’s power grid.

Diagram illustrating a solar energy system: 1) Sunlight hitting solar panels on a roof, 2) Electricity generation, 3) Inverter converting power, 4) Electricity being sent to the power grid.

Did You Know?

Solar panels are the most obvious part of the system. Every day, they sit on your roof and collect the limitless energy the sun provides.

The inverter converts the energy collected by the solar panels and turns it into usable electricity, which powers your home. Inverters can be a separate piece (as shown here) or they can be micro-inverters, which are part of each individual solar panel.

The meter is what measures your electricity usage. When using solar energy, your meter will frequently run “backwards” as you sell your excess electricity back to the local utility company.

The power lines and the whole huge system that supplies electricity to your entire region. Your home is still connected to the grid for times when it needs electricity that you are not currently producing (mostly at night).

Image of a house with solar panels on the roof, set against a sunset sky.

There are 3 main factors that determine whether your home is a good candidate for solar energy in the Midwest:

  • Does it get a good amount of direct sunlight (not overly obstructed by shade)?
  • What is the orientation of the roof (technically “Azimuth,” which means North, South, East, West)?
  • Roof condition, shape, and size.

Direct Sunlight

The sunlight has to make it to the solar panels in order for them to work. If the roof of your house gets a lot of direct sunlight during the day, then you may be an ideal candidate for solar. Having a shaded or obstructed roof, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t go solar, as there are several ways to overcome the challenges of shade.

  • Power Optimizers or Micro-Inverters can improve a system’s performance. This technology allows each panel to work independently, ensuring that each panel produces as much electricity as it can when it receives sunlight. When one panel is shaded, its output goes down, but the rest of the system is unaffected. This is particularly effective to overcome the impact of tall trees in a nearby neighbor’s yard.
Image of a residential garage with solar panels on the roof and a white SUV parked in the driveway.
Image of a residential house with solar panels installed on the roof, a ladder leaning against the house, and a truck parked on the street.

Orientation Of Your Roof

For the highest efficiency of solar energy systems in the Midwest, it is recommended that solar panels face true south. This orientation is most effective in capturing direct sunlight throughout the day, which is essential given the Midwest’s varying climate. While roofs oriented to the east or west receive less direct sunlight compared to those facing south, they can still produce a considerable amount of electricity. In the Midwest, a residence with east or west-facing solar panels can achieve around 80% of the efficiency of a home with south-facing panels. Consequently, even if the alignment isn’t ideal, installing a few extra panels can make up for the reduced efficiency, ensuring adequate energy production and significant savings on energy costs.

Roof Condition, Shape, and Size

Once installed, a solar system can function efficiently for over 25 years, so it’s important to ensure your roof is in good condition before installation. If your roof is in poor shape or aging, it may be necessary to replace it before adding solar panels. In such cases, you may be in luck! Including the roof replacement as part of the solar project can help offset the cost, making it feel like getting a new roof with solar.

Roof shapes vary considerably with different house styles. The ideal roof shape for solar in the Midwest is a simple rectangle-shaped “gable” roof, allowing for the installation of as many panels as needed without concerns about space. Solar can also work well with other roof shapes, even those with many dormers or valleys. It just requires a bit more effort to configure and fit the proper number of panels to meet the home’s energy needs.

At Wolf River Electric, we pride ourselves on making the most of every opportunity for our customers. So, if another solar company has told you that your house isn’t “good” for solar, let us take a look. We often succeed in situations where other companies couldn’t.

Diagram from Wolf River Electric showcasing custom solar solutions for various roof types and materials, including pitched roof, flat roof, canopy roof, shingle, asphalt, slate, and metal.