What is Solar Energy and How Does it Work?

[fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][fusion_text]Solar energy is essentially the source of all life on the planet Earth. Heat and light from the sun have enabled life to thrive for billions of years on many different levels.

It is the source of most forms of energy we depend upon. In fact, even the fossil fuels that we rely on so heavily began as a form of solar energy. The decayed remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago eventually became crude oil. These ancient plants and animals originally received their energy from the sun.

Not only is solar energy plentiful, it’s dependable and diverse in its applications. That is, at least for the next 5 billion years. By then, it will have become a red giant and vaporized everything in its path!

You’ve undoubtedly seen solar panels used in areas such as rooftops, buildings, emergency phones, and streetlights. These panels are simply collecting energy from the sun and converting it into a usable form of electricity.

You may ask yourself how a ray of sunshine can transform into reliable and usable form of electricity. First, let’s take a look at the sun itself and discover where the energy comes from.

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[/fusion_text][/fullwidth][fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][title size=”1″ content_align=”left” style_type=”default” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]What is solar energy?[/title][fusion_text]

Here’s a short video that goes over the basics of how solar panels work:

[youtube id=”xKxrkht7CpY” width=”691″ height=”403″ autoplay=”no” api_params=”” class=””]

To put it into simple terms, solar energy is energy that comes from the sun.

Intense nuclear reactions are constantly occurring at the core of the sun (nuclear fusion). These reactions produce a huge amount of heat and pressure buildup, causing electrons in hydrogen atoms to separate.

This separation causes the hydrogen atoms to convert into helium and results in energy in the form of heat. This atomic separation of electrons is where solar energy comes from.

After millions of years, this heat finally makes its way to the surface of the sun. It then begins its short journey to the earth (about 8 minutes) as radiant energy particles called photons.

A relatively small amount of these photons actually reach the Earth. Earth is after all rather tiny in the grand scheme of the cosmos. For our purposes, it’s an infinite amount.

Once this energy finally reaches the earth, it’s scattered among the elements.

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[progress height=”” text_position=”” percentage=”46″ show_percentage=”yes” unit=”%” filledcolor=”” filledbordercolor=”” filledbordersize=”” unfilledcolor=”” striped=”yes” animated_stripes=”yes” textcolor=”” class=”” id=””]Absorbed by The Earth[/progress][progress height=”” text_position=”” percentage=”19″ show_percentage=”yes” unit=”%” filledcolor=”” filledbordercolor=”” filledbordersize=”” unfilledcolor=”” striped=”yes” animated_stripes=”yes” textcolor=”” class=”” id=””]Absorbed by Vapor, Ozone, Dust, etc.[/progress][progress height=”” text_position=”” percentage=”17″ show_percentage=”yes” unit=”%” filledcolor=”” filledbordercolor=”” filledbordersize=”” unfilledcolor=”” striped=”yes” animated_stripes=”yes” textcolor=”” class=”” id=””]Reflected by Clouds[/progress][progress height=”” text_position=”” percentage=”8″ show_percentage=”yes” unit=”%” filledcolor=”” filledbordercolor=”” filledbordersize=”” unfilledcolor=”” striped=”yes” animated_stripes=”yes” textcolor=”” class=”” id=””]Scattered in the Atmosphere[/progress][progress height=”” text_position=”” percentage=”6″ show_percentage=”yes” unit=”%” filledcolor=”” filledbordercolor=”” filledbordersize=”” unfilledcolor=”” striped=”yes” animated_stripes=”yes” textcolor=”” class=”” id=””]Reflected by the Earth’s Surface[/progress][progress height=”” text_position=”” percentage=”4″ show_percentage=”yes” unit=”%” filledcolor=”” filledbordercolor=”” filledbordersize=”” unfilledcolor=”” striped=”yes” animated_stripes=”yes” textcolor=”” class=”” id=””]Absorbed by Clouds[/progress]
[checklist icon=”fa-star” iconcolor=”” circle=”” circlecolor=”” size=”13px” class=”” id=””][li_item icon=””]Any remaining photons simply aren’t used or become trapped inside the atmosphere because of the greenhouse effect, which warms the air and keeps everything nice and cozy.[/li_item][/checklist]
[/fullwidth][fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][title size=”1″ content_align=”left” style_type=”none” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]So how does solar power work?[/title][fusion_text]Now that you know where solar energy comes from let’s talk about the different ways in which we can take advantage of it.

We can harness solar energy using several methods falling under the categories of either active solar energy or passive solar energy.

Active Solar Energy:

Active solar energy methods use special equipment to convert sunlight into electricity. This will usually be in the form of photovoltaic panels  (PV panels) that convert photons into electricity.

Solar panels contain several individual solar cells. These cells take advantage of the photoelectric effect and the special semiconductor properties of silicon (which helps absorb a portion of the sunlight). In a nutshell, when photons from sunlight reach the silicon, electrons separate within the atoms. These freed electrons flow through a circuit and convert into direct current electricity.

Another method that is becoming popular on solar farms is concentrated solar power. These come in many different shapes and sizes. For example, a solar thermal collector uses curved parabolic lenses or mirrors to magnify the sun’s heat.  All the heat directs towards a focal point called a receiver tube. A heat efficient liquid such as oil fills this tube, and the intense heat causes water to boil. The boiling water becomes steam, enters a turbine, and then spins a generator to produce electricity.

Passive Solar Energy:

Passive solar methods don’t rely on photovoltaic cells, pumps, fans, or ducts to deliver heat. Homes and buildings can use the sun’s natural energy to meet their lighting and heating needs.

Passive solar energy is mainly used for heating and cooling buildings and homes and offsetting the cost of utilities. Depending on location and climate, strategic design can dramatically increase the efficiency.

[/fusion_text][title size=”4″ content_align=”left” style_type=”default” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]Some important factors for an efficient passive solar setup include:[/title][checklist icon=”fa-check” iconcolor=”” circle=”” circlecolor=”” size=”13px” class=”” id=””][li_item icon=””]Proper alignment to the sun (facing south)[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Specially glazed windows

[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Window placement

[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Thermal mass materials (material that can hold the heat such as water, dirt, clay, or stone)[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Interior design (making sure everything flows efficiently)[/li_item][/checklist][/fullwidth][fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][title size=”1″ content_align=”left” style_type=”default” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]Uses of Solar Energy:[/title][fusion_text]Once solar energy converts to electricity, it’s used to power anything that needs electricity. Apart from the electrical applications, the benefits of solar energy are many and only limited by our imaginations.

Some examples include:

[/fusion_text][checklist icon=”fa-check” iconcolor=”” circle=”” circlecolor=”” size=”13px” class=”” id=””][li_item icon=””]Architecture and urban planning – using passive methods to lessen the need for electricity in both buildings and communities as a whole.[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Solar thermal power- water heating, cooling, and ventilation.[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Water treatment – disinfecting water by distillation from the suns rays.

[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Cooking – solar cookers that concentrate and reflect the suns heat.[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Solar chemical – using solar energy to create chemical reactions, such as creating hydrogen for fuel cell technologies.[/li_item][li_item icon=””]Solar powered vehicles – cars, boats, and planes that incorporate solar technologies to lessen fuel costs.[/li_item][/checklist][/fullwidth][fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][title size=”1″ content_align=”left” style_type=”default” sep_color=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” class=”” id=””]Availability of Solar Energy[/title][fusion_text]Recently we are realizing the unavoidable fact that fossil fuels cannot sustain us for much longer. It’s a limited resource that is constantly harming our planet in many ways. Pollution, sustainability issues, unstable prices and foreign conflict are all making alternative choices much more appealing.

Overall, the sun creates more in a single second then human beings have ever used since the beginning of time. In fact, it only takes one year to get twice the energy that fossil fuels have ever given us (or will ever provide in the future).

This is an incredible amount of potential energy, although we only harness a fraction of it.  This is partly because we have yet to use it on a larger scale. There are also some technological aspects to overcome. Currently, solar energy’s cost-effectiveness is the main drawback, but breakthroughs are occurring every day.[/fusion_text][/fullwidth][fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”” padding_right=”” hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][tagline_box backgroundcolor=”description=” shadow=”no” shadowopacity=”0.7″ border=”1px” bordercolor=”” highlightposition=”top” content_alignment=”left” link=”” linktarget=”_self” modal=”” button_size=”” button_shape=”” button_type=”” buttoncolor=”” button=”” title=”A Bright Future Ahead” description=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”slide” animation_direction=”up” animation_speed=”0.7″ animation_offset=”” class=”” id=””]With the new found demand for renewable energy sources, developing solar technology is reaching breakthroughs at a fast and exciting pace. Solar energy will most likely become much more accessible to the public in the future.

Currently, only .03% of energy production in the world comes from solar energy, but the industry is steadily growing by about 30% each year. This emerging industry is giving inventors and innovators great opportunities to create new collection methods.

In fact, according to the US Department of Energy, efforts are underway to “make solar energy technologies cost-competitive with other forms of energy by reducing the cost of solar energy systems by about 75% before 2020.”

As fossil fuels continue to become scarce, solar energy will continue to be an important source of renewable energy in the coming years. We still have a long way to go before we’re able take advantage of it on a larger scale, but with every new solar energy breakthrough we are moving towards a cleaner and brighter future.[/tagline_box][/fullwidth]

Paul Newcomb
 

Chief editor here at Powered By Mother Nature. I am passionate about renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, biomass energy, and helping others take advantage of them.

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