Photovoltaics is best known as a method for generating solar power by using solar cells packaged in photovoltaic modules, often electrically connected in multiples as solar photovoltaic arrays to convert energy from the sun into electricity. To explain the photovoltaic solar panel more simply, photons from sunlight knock electrons into a higher state of energy, creating electricity.

The term photovoltaic denotes the unbiased operating mode of a photodiode in which current through the device is entirely due to the transduced light energy. Virtually all photovoltaic devices are some type of photodiode. Solar cells produce direct current electricity from light, which can be used to power equipment or to recharge a battery. The first practical application of photovoltaics was to power orbiting satellites and other spacecraft, but today the majority of photovoltaic modules are used for grid connected power generation. In this case an inverter is required to convert the DC to AC. There is a smaller market for off grid power for remote dwellings, roadside emergency telephones, remote sensing, and cathodic protection of pipelines.

Cells require protection from the environment and are packaged usually behind a glass sheet. When more power is required than a single cell can deliver, cells are electrically connected together to form photovoltaic modules, or solar panels. A single module is enough to power an emergency telephone, but for a house or a power plant the modules must be arranged in arrays.

Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are increasingly incorporated into new domestic and industrial buildings as a principal or ancillary source of electrical power, and are one of the fastest growing segments of the photovoltaic industry. Typically, an array is incorporated into the roof or walls of a building, and roof tiles with integrated PV cells can now be purchased. Arrays can also be retrofitted into existing buildings; in this case they are usually fitted on top of the existing roof structure. Alternatively, an array can be located separately from the building but connected by cable to supply power for the building.

Where a building is at a considerable distance from the public electricity supply (or grid) - in remote or mountainous areas - PV may be the preferred possibility for generating electricity, or PV may be used together with wind, diesel generators and/or hydroelectric power. In such off-grid circumstances batteries are usually used to store the electric power.