What is Solar Energy

The definition of solar energy is simply: energy from the sun.

Solar energy can be harnessed for practical uses in society.  There are two types of solar energy: solar thermal and photovoltaic.  Solar thermal catches the heat from the sun to transfer it to warm water or liquid for climate control.  Photovoltaic uses solar cells to convert solar energy into electricity. 

Solar Energy Pros and Cons

Some of the solar energy advantages are that it reduces electricity costs and consumption from the grid. It is a renewable energy source that does not cause air pollution. · It helps to diversify energy sources to reduce the chance of power outages and contribute additional energy during peak usage. Solar panels are relatively low maintenance with few moving parts depending on the type. 

Some of the solar energy disadvantages are: initial costs, reliability, and recycling. Initial costs for equipment and installation can be relatively high, although prices have been declining rapidly and payment mechanisms have been developed to make it easier to finance.  Solar is dependent on the sun shining, so weather can have an affect on how much energy you are generating and availability may change throughout the day and seasons.  Although solar does not cause air pollution, the manufacturing of solar panels can have negative effects on the environment. There also needs to be work done on finding ways to dispose or recycle used solar panels.

How Does Solar Energy Work

Solar thermal usually has panels or containers with liquid that are exposed to the sun until the liquid heats up.  This heat can then be pumped through tubes that are run through a water tank or pool to heat the water.  

Photovoltaics uses a solar panel made up of silicon cells.  When photons from the sun strike the cells, electrons are scattered producing a direct current of electricity.  The direct current is carried along wires for direct current applications or through an inverter which converts it into alternating current to match the electricity for household applications.

Concentrated solar energy uses a series of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy on one focal center that then uses photovoltaic technology to convert it into electricity. Several large-scale concentrated solar projects are being used to add to the energy grid of a number of major cities.

There are also simple designs that use mirror reflections or lenses to use the sun’s energy for cooking purposes.

Is Solar Energy Renewable

The energy from the sun is abundant and inexhaustible and using it does not produce toxic emissions that contribute to climate change. Capturing the sun’s energy through solar thermal can be an efficient way to heat water for homes, pools or other applications. Converting it into electricity requires the use of photovoltaic solar cells usually in solar panels.  The manufacturing of solar panels is where the controversy comes, because the process uses some rare materials and chemicals that could cause pollution and be harmful to the environment.  There is also a question of what to do with the solar panels once they are no longer usable.  There are several innovations both in terms of manufacturing and recycling that are in the works.