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How Does Solar Energy Work?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 ENERGY 101FAQ

Whether you are looking to save money, reduce your impact on the environment, or both, taking control of your energy needs starts with understanding your options. Here we will look at what solar energy is, how it works, and what makes it an increasingly popular renewable energy resource.

What is solar energy?

Solar energy is quite simply energy that is created by the sun. It is the result of constantly occurring nuclear reactions that take place deep within the sun’s core and over millions of years this energy makes its way to the surface of the sun and out into the atmosphere. These particles of radiant energy are called photons – otherwise known as heat and light – and its journey from the surface of the sun to the Earth takes just 8 minutes.

An almost infinite resource

The sun produces a staggering amount of solar energy, so much so that every hour more solar energy hits the Earth than the entire planet will consume in a year. Considering that the sun is expected to be around for at least another 5 billion years, you’d be forgiven for calling solar energy an unlimited resource.

Turning solar into power

The two main methods of converting solar energy into power can be defined as either Active or Passive Solar Energy systems. Below is a brief look at both.

Turning solar into power

The two main methods of converting solar energy into power can be defined as either Active or Passive Solar Energy systems. Below is a brief look at both.

Active Solar Energy

Using mechanical equipment to capture solar energy and turn it into a usable source of power is known as Active Solar Energy. If you are looking to capture the greatest amount of energy and create maximum power, this is the way to do so.

Photovoltaic systems

This popular approach uses high tech panels made up of photovoltaic cells. Often referred to as solar cells, photovoltaic cells are commonly made from the semiconductor silicon (which is the second most abundant element on Earth) and these high tech cells can last upwards of 20 years. When the photons in sunlight hit these cells the electrons in the atoms they contain are essentially knocked free, this enables the now mobile electrons to be channeled into a circuit as Direct Current (DC) electricity. Because our electrical systems work on Alternating Current (AC) electricity, DC electricity must first be inverted into AC form before it can be used to power our homes, offices and businesses. At present, most commercial solar cells can convert 10-25% of sunlight into electricity, though efficiency levels of up to 46% are now possible.

Concentrated solar power systems

One of the first methods ever used to harness solar energy; concentrated solar power systems consist of using strategically positioned lenses and mirrors to focus sunlight into concentrated beams. These high intensity beams are then used to heat water or other liquids to create steam, and this steam then works to spin a turbine or turbines which, in turn, create electricity. While basic mirrors and troughs have been used for thousands of years, modern systems include high tech sun tracking capabilities that can boost efficiency dramatically. One of the latest innovations in concentrated solar power systems is the use of floating solar farms, an idea that many experts believe will play a major role in global energy production of the future.

Passive Solar Energy

Passive Solar Energy involves designing buildings in such a way that they make better use of the sun’s heat and light naturally. For example; incorporating strategically placed windows and skylights into a structure can save a significant amount on artificial heating and lighting costs, all while reducing reliance on non-renewable resources. Window coatings, insulated frames and even your choice of flooring can play an important role in a Passive Solar Energy System, as not only does heat and light need to get in; it must also be prevented from getting out. Passive Solar Systems can also be used for cooling by essentially adopting the reverse principles, such as incorporating reflective surfaces, shading and insulation, as well as maximizing natural airflow.

The need for clean, cheap, renewable energy has never been greater, and considering that we currently only take advantage of a tiny fraction of the solar energy available, the potential benefit is massive to say the least. Expect to see solar energy become cheaper, more efficient and more popular in the years to come.


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