The Illinois Solar Schools Program: The Inverter

When you hear about solar electricity, most people think about the solar panels. And there will always be solar panels. But if you follow the wires leading from the solar panel they almost always lead to an inverter. The inverter in this pix is a Solectria brand inverter. The inverter converts the DC (Direct Current) electricity (like that runs into your car battery to power your car radio and air conditioning and your lights and power windows) to AC (Alternating Current) electricity (think the electricity that powers your television and the lights in your classroom). If the switch is from DC to AC, it goes through an inverter and the pix shows an inverter. If the switch is from AC to DC, it goes through a rectifier. And DC electricity is something most of you use all of the time even if you are not in a car. Your lap top and your cell phone (when it is not connected to an AC outlet) are powered by DC electricity that is stored in a battery. You plug into an outlet where AC electricity flows through the wire to a small rectifier that converts that AC electricity into the DC electricity needed to power the laptop or cell phone battery. Most devices use AC adapters that allow you to power the device on AC power but also charge the battery inside the device on DC power. Basically your cell phone and most laptops run on both AC and DC power. So in many portable devices you use every day, these inverters or rectifiers switch either AC electricity to DC electricity or DC electricity to AC electricity depending on the device you want to use and how you are using it and in many of our most popular devices like cell phones and laptops they run on AC or DC power depending on whether it is plugged into an AC outlet or not. Companies that sell these products want you to find them easy to use so they make the devices useable in any situation. (I am not saying you will be able to get cell service but your device will have power.) And some things we are starting to see a lot these days are electric car chargers. To charge an electric car you typically plug into a DC charger. This takes DC power directly into your car battery without the need to convert the DC power to AC power because batteries run on DC power. If you plug in your electric car to an AC outlet (and many cars now can), then you need a rectifier in your car to switch that AC power from your outlet to DC and the more recent electric cars are (like your cell phone) able to be charged by DC power (quickly and more efficiently) or by AC power (it takes longer because the AC power has to be rectified back to DC power when it gets into the car and some electricity gets lost in the conversion.

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