What is Solar Energy and How Does it Work

What is Solar Energy and How Does it Work

It’s likely you already understand that solar energy is power harnessed from the sun, but do you know why so much energy comes to us from the sun?  Do you know how it gets here? How it’s harnessed?

We understand solar energy can be a hefty concept to take on, especially if you’re new to it. You’ll be surprised to find how technically straightforward the process actually is.  In most cases, understanding solar power systems and wiring is easier than understanding traditional electrical systems and wiring.

Plus, we’re here to help.  We’ve compiled a comprehensive set of fundamentals you should know. In the article below, you’ll find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions, the pros and cons of solar, specifications and comparisons of materials and technology, and practical applications for solar power around your home in big or little ways; whatever is most comfortable for you. Read on for a breakdown of the basics and come out the other side of this article a casual authority on utilizing solar energy.

Common Questions about Solar Energy

Common Questions about Solar Energy

Why does the sun make so much energy?

Our sun is a fascinating celestial object that exists in what is essentially a perpetual state of nuclear reaction. Made up of 70% hydrogen, 28% helium, and other gases, its dense plasma surface rests at temperatures of no less than 5,800 ºK. At its core, hydrogen is transformed into helium through fusion. The process releases blinding light and incredibly high levels of heat in all directions, including towards our planet.

In approximately 8½ minutes, this light travels 93 million miles to Earth in the form of energy particles or photons. With the proper tools, this energy can be harnessed and converted to electricity and solar thermal energy.

How is solar energy harnessed?

There are many ways the sun is used for power, but we’ll focus on the two most popular consumer applications:  solar thermal and solar electrical. For a solar thermal system to take its power from the sun, typically a thermal mass is utilized.  This can be in the form of an evacuated tube collector or a glazed flat plate collector in the case of hot water for homes. For outdoor pools, for example, an unglazed plastic collector is the usual method to harness the sun’s energy.  It both cases, heat is collected from the sun’s radiation and used to warm water. For an electrical solar power system to take its power from the sun, specially designed silicone glass panels absorb sunlight and that energy is converted to electrical energy and generally stored in a rechargeable battery, or series of batteries.

How does solar thermal energy work?

Solar thermal energy has a broad range of applications, but this is typically not the way electricity is generated, as it’s not the most efficient method.  However, when solar thermal energy is used to produce electricity, it’s generally on a large scale (which creates better efficiency) and it utilizes “high-temperature” solar thermal energy on an industrial level.  More commonly, we see solar thermal systems utilizing “low-temperature” energy for heating and cooling homes, or “mid-temperature” energy for heating domestic hot water.

A great example of low-temp solar thermal energy in the home is being built into modern blueprints more frequently: highly functional interior design.  Interiors are designed in such a way as to allow for natural and embellished use of the sun to heat or cool the home. These designs use specialized angles and materials that maximize the effects.  This might be, for example, a window deliberately placed for maximum light or heat, and treated with a special solar silicone or other technology to collect with utmost efficiency.

Mid-temp solar thermal energy is most often used to heat domestic water for washing, cleaning, cooking, and so forth.  The heat from the sun is captured and concentrated by collectors and that water is then sent through your home’s water system.  This offsets the need to heat water tanks with expensive and dangerous (not to mention non-renewable) gas and traditional electricity.

How does solar electricity work?

Not to be confused with solar thermal energy, solar electric energy is typically referred to as photovoltaics, often abbreviated PV.  This is the collection of photons from the sun being converted into volts that can be used to power any electrical motor or appliance.  With a photovoltaic (PV) system, solar panels are used to collect this energy.

The typical contemporary solar cell is made of silicone and constructed with two layers,  one of which is positively charged, and the other, negatively. When the two layers are put together, they create an electrical field. When the cell is exposed to the sun, photons hit the solar cell and dislodge electrons from their atoms. Loose electrons now flow through the electric field and when conductors are attached to the positive and negative ends of the cell, an electrical circuit is formed. A solar panel consists of dozens of solar cells, and a typical home PV system consists of about 10 panels. These panels absorb photons which is converted to electrical power and stored in a series of batteries to be used around the home. A solar inverter is required as well in order to make use of the power, which can then be used to power things like solar lights.

Depending on the scope of your PV system, this power could be used primarily as a backup for emergency outages, it may power some pieces of your home, like lighting and charging devices, or it might be capable of being the primary source of your home’s electricity for all things.  If your system produces an excess of energy, this can be given to the local utility company in exchange for credits or cash.

Is solar power expensive?

The initial investment in solar power can range from a few dollars to a significant expenditure, depending on what system or products you’re hoping to acquire. If you plan to install a solar power system for your home, you may also need to consider the cost of a technician to help. In many cases, you don’t need any additional permits and you don’t necessarily need a technician if you’re a handy sort of person.  Though the upfront cost should be considered, the savings comes from the return on your investment. You may spend $1000 to install a basic system, but by using much less traditional electricity and gas, your system will have paid for itself in several months. At that point, you continue to save significantly on your utility bills because now you use free sunlight. Your system could easily pay for itself 3 times over in less than a year. Plus, depending on your system and setup, your excess solar power can often be sold off to local power companies so you even begin to make a profit with your investment.

Is solar power reliable?

Although the sun is an inexhaustible resource, it does set everyday, leaving us unable to harness its power for a period of time.  This can obviously be resolved by storing the sun’s energy in rechargeable batteries, and in many cases that’s exactly what happens. This is often the way off-grid enthusiasts use power all through the night and even in dark and inclement weather; batteries.  For homeowners and consumers, solar power is reliable, but it’s harnessing sunlight properly that really makes the process more reliable.  That means having the right products and materials, and making sure they’re quality items with well-rated performance.  In terms of potential efficiency, consider this: if we were to safely utilize our planet’s atmosphere, land masses, and water masses, we could harness enough energy in 1 hour to power the entire world for an entire year.

Pros & Cons for a Solar Home

Pros & Cons for a Solar Home

Let’s be honest, there’s a good side and a bad side to every topic and solar power is no exception.  Here are the biggest bonuses and drawbacks to relying on solar energy:

Advantages

  • Solar power is eco-friendly; it reduces product waste, toxic pollution, dependence on non-renewable resources, and the global carbon print
  • Solar energy systems are often much easier to install than traditional wiring; the maintenance and care requirement is much less, and replacements and repairs are infrequent
  • Solar energy systems are safer in the home than that of traditional electricity and gas, which is more volatile and poses a higher risk of hazard
  • Solar power is a significant way to save money on utilities

Disadvantages

  • The initial cost of investment can be significant if an entire household system is being installed
  • While the process of solar power reduces waste and pollution, the manufacturing of solar panels raises eco-conscious concerns

Conclusion

Perhaps by now, you know you want to take advantage of what solar energy has to offer, but you feel a bit hesitant with where to begin.  It’s really a matter of starting where you’re comfortable. You can start with something as simple as a few little solar powered toys around the home.  If you want to step it up in terms of functionality but you don’t want to make a commitment yet, try a very low-cost, low-risk solar product to test out first.  A solar charger bank for your cell phone and devices is a great idea. It’s a great resource to have in an emergency, too. In fact, solar powered items are hugely popular with emergency preppers and outdoor enthusiasts because of its versatility and dependability.  If you’re ready for something bigger, determine what it might take to create outdoor solar lighting on your property. This type of system is one of the most low maintenance of any solar installation. Or you may find yourself searching for a technician to equip your home with off-grid electricity.

Congratulations for taking the time to familiarize yourself with how solar energy works.  The time has passed for vague curiosity and you should be proud of yourself for taking this proactive step toward being a responsible contributor to the future of the planet, and your own personal wellbeing.  Take what you’ve learned today and find a practical way of introducing solar energy to your household. With the many benefits you stand to gain as a consumer of free energy, you’ll be forever happy you did.

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