While solar is comprised of a diverse suite of technologies, there are three main types: photovoltaics (PV), solar heating & cooling (SHC), and concentrating solar power (CSP). Homeowners and businesses interested in going solar are primarily interested in the first two technologies, while utilities and large-scale energy project developers primarily utilize the latter.
PV panels directly produce electricity from sunlight, while SHC technologies use thermal (heat) energy to change the temperature of water and air. PV panels have no moving parts, and use an inverter to change the direct current (DC) power they produce to usable alternating current (AC) power. SHC technologies are often used to heat water for domestic or commercial use, but can also be used to heat or cool the air in buildings.
Most concentrating solar power systems use concentrated sunlight to drive a traditional steam turbine, creating electricity on a large scale. There are also concentrating solar technologies that use photovoltaic technology to produce electricity without a thermal process.
Visit SEIA's solar technology section to learn more about the various types and applications for solar energy systems.
For an in-depth look at how solar panels work, check out this animated graphic from Save On Energy: