Do Solar Panels Work at Night?  In the Rain?

DecisionData Team
October 03, 2019

As technology advances, alternative forms of energy become more realistic.  We have known for awhile that solar energy is more or less an untapped resource that is, at least for the foreseeable future, endlessly renewable.  The problem has been the price of solar energy. Solar panels can be expensive, and customers thinking of switching wonder if it is worth the investment.  The short answer is that it is. With the technology of today, solar energy is a great alternative electricity source for homes across America. It can save you money and lessen your carbon footprint at the same time.

Even if you’re convinced that solar energy is a good investment financially and environmentally, what about practically?  When exactly do solar panels work? Will you still have access to electricity at night, in the rain, or when it’s cloudy? Do solar panels work in these situations?  While yes, you can still have access to electricity, the answer is actually no, solar panels are not actively working when there is no sunlight. Read on to see how that is the case.

Solar Panels at Nighttime

How do solar panels actually work?  In simple terms, solar panels absorb sunlight, which is also known as photovoltaic energy, and turn it into usable power, or direct current energy.  This direct current power is then converted into alternating current power.  This is the type of energy that the majority of houses run on. This process can only happen when there is light for the panels to convert, so solar panels are not actively working overnight.

How, then, will you have electricity during the night?  For many homes, this is the time they use the most power, as we need lights to see and get work done once the sun has gone down.  You will still have power overnight because solar energy can be stored. Whether you have net metering or a battery, you will be able to continuously use your renewable energy source day and night with no stoppages.

Solar Net Metering

Solar energy users still have electricity at night and during storms because of something called net metering.  When you install solar panels at your home, you can still be connected to the power grid. This guarantees that you will have power as long as the grid is up and running.  If your panels are producing the same amount of energy that you are using, this connection doesn’t do anything. However, solar panels often produce much more energy than can be spent by a single household.  This extra electricity goes back into the grid to power other connected homes and businesses.   

You as the solar panel owner get compensated for this extra electricity you are providing.  Credits are added to your electric bill, which can be used at night when your solar panels aren’t producing energy.  Basically, your solar panels are making you money and producing (hopefully) all of the electricity you use. You are simply using the power grid as energy storage.

Net metering is obviously beneficial and is growing in popularity, but it isn’t available in all locations.  If you are the first person to get solar panels in your town, it is highly unlikely that the local power company will be willing and able to provide you with this service.  This doesn’t mean that you can’t install solar panels in these places. It only means that you can’t use the power grid as a storage system. You will have to find an alternative source for nighttime electric.

Solar Battery Banks

The more traditional way to store solar energy is in your own battery bank.  These can be installed with your panels and allow your home to be completely off the grid electrically.  The batteries store excess energy that is collected during the day so you can use it at night. Because solar panels produce so much energy, batteries are a better option for homes or businesses that use a lot of power.  Even if you don’t use that much electricity, you can still install a battery bank if there is no net metering option in your area. Another pro of having your own battery is that you won’t be affected by problems with the power grid.

Solar Panels on Cloudy Days and in the Rain

So we already know that there are ways to store solar energy so it works at night, but are solar panels still a good investment if you don’t live in a place that is sunny all the time?  They seem like a great idea for a state like Arizona, but what about somewhere cloudy like Washington? The short answer is that solar panels still work when it is raining or cloudy. The only time they aren’t collecting energy is when there is no sunlight at all, like during the night.  Solar panels produce an estimated 10 to 25 percent of their normal output on a cloudy day.

This is still generally enough power for most households.  That means that cloudy or rainy climates can still benefit from solar energy.  In fact, many of the places where solar is the most popular in the United States aren’t sunny.  San Francisco, for example, is one of the top five cities where solar energy is used. This is due to the high electric rates there.  High cost of electricity is a more common factor in places where solar energy is more popular than sunny climate is. Sunlight alone cannot be the determining factor as to whether you can benefit from installing solar panels at your home.

Depending on the particular weather conditions, clouds can actually help solar panels collect more power.  They can reflect sunlight onto the panels or sometimes even magnify it depending on the type of cloud. 

It may be helpful to think of brightness rather than sunlight when considering when solar panels are working.  As long as there is light, the panels are absorbing and converting energy. The brighter and less obstructed the light, the more energy they will create.