Solar energy is revolutionizing the way we consume power and electricity. By making homes more self-sufficient, and ecologically friendly, we can not only live more comfortably but help the environment as well. This amazing technology is nearly limitless in potential, only requires the sun, and only outputs electricity. So how does it all work? How does the science behind these amazing contraptions work? How does it compare to other energy sources?
A Solar panel could be defined as either one of two things: a photovoltaic module, which is the most common form, and a solar water heater which, while serving two purposes, isn’t as reliable as photovoltaic cells.
Photovoltaic cells are sheets of semi-conductive materials, usually silicon, sandwiched between conductive metal. The silicon sheets consist of two separate pieces, a positive side where there are fewer electrons, and a negative side, where there are more electrons per atom. The sheets are exposed to sunlight, which contains a large amount of photons (subatomic particles of light.) When a photon hits an electron hard enough, the electron breaks free from the atom. The electron leaves the silicon through the negative side and passes through the conductive metal. It travels along the conductive metal, producing current as it passes through a circuit (or the home power grid). It keeps traveling until it returns to the silicon, on the positive side (hence the lack of emissions or pollution). This process continues indefinitely in the presence of sunlight. Generally, a single cell can produce a small amount of electricity, but a group of cells, packed into a module can add significantly more power output, have several modules and can even be enough to fully power your home. With a power storage device, excess energy can be saved for times when the sun isn’t out, allowing your home to be completely powered by sunlight.
A solar water heater is a system that uses the sun’s heat to heat water. Residentially, this is mostly to give homes hot water during the day, but industrially this can be a viable means of producing power. The way this system works is by exposing a collector with a working fluid (or a fluid more conductive to heat), which is then fed to a water source, providing hot water. The system is cycled constantly by being warmed by the sun and then cooled by water, which takes the heat, and can thus be applied elsewhere for a number of purposes.
The Applications of Solar Energy Compared to Other Sources
There are some obvious benefits to solar energy compared to that of energy sourced from fossil fuels. For one, there are no emissions and the energy source is free, and practically limitless. There’s no need to source it from the ground, or go through the effort of searching for it and digging it up. There’s no utility lines, energy bills or continuous payment. Just one purchase for installation, and maybe a second for energy storage. In many states, you can even get credit for excess energy produced by your solar energy system, and businesses like Bob Heinmiller Solar Solutions in Orlando, Florida can assist with installation of solar panels for your home or business.
Even though it isn’t perfect, compared to other renewable energy sources, solar energy can stand on its own as an arguably better energy source than alternatives like biomass, wind, and hydroelectric energy. Biomass is much cleaner than fossil fuels and is renewable through crops. However, it’s not in great supply, requires a lot more space to produce, is less efficient, and less eco-friendly than solar power (biomass still produces emissions, where solar energy produces none.) Wind energy is greatly renewable and does not produce as much emissions either. However, wind systems require windy areas, where solar power relies solely on access to sunlight, making them much less efficient. Hydroelectric energy is plentiful, makes no emissions, and is wonderfully efficient. That said, it does require a moving water source, is costly, and can directly damage nearby ecosystems and communities by restricting the flow of water.