The Basics of Solar Energy

Solar Energy’s Potential


Solar energy is an abundant source of essentially free power that has amazing potential to solve our planet’s energy needs with minimal impact on the environment.  According to the US Department of Energy, just 18 days of sunshine on Earth contains the same amount of energy as is stored in all of the planet’s reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas.  And, once a system is in place to harness the solar resource and convert it into useful energy, the fuel is free.  These factors make solar energy attractive from both an economic as well as an environmental point of view.


The Growth of Solar Power as an Energy Source


This renewable energy source, first used commercially more than 100 years ago, is growing rapidly as people and nations look for sources of energy that are sustainable and environmentally sound.  More and more solar panels are evident as you drive by homes, parking structures, schools and businesses – solar panels are now visible everywhere as an ever increasing number of individuals and companies begin to tap into this resource.  Growth in the solar power industry is so rapid that solar power is expected to become the world’s biggest source of electricity by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency


How Does Solar Energy Work?


The first and most basic concept to understand relative to solar energy is the simplicity of how it works.  Basically, solar energy is produced by capturing radiant light and heat from the sun and then converting it into energy that can be used to power homes, businesses, tools and machinery.  Electricity is generated during peak periods — hot afternoons — when the demand is highest and air conditioners are going full blast.  But solar energy can be stored for later use such as on highways where the sun’s energy is captured during the day to enable highway signs to shine at night.


There are different kinds of systems that can be designed to collect and store solar energy but the most common installation is known as an active solar power system.  An active system uses a mechanism, such as the solar panels one sees on a roof, to capture sunlight and generate power. Solar panels are made up of photovoltaic (PV) cells that capture sunlight particles called photons. Using a semiconducting material such as silicon, the PV cells then convert the photons into useable direct current (DC) electricity. NAn inverter connected by wires to the panels turns those direct currents (DC) into alternating current (AC) electricity and sends it to the breaker box panel in your home or business to power your lights, computers and other appliances.


Depending on how much power your system generates – which is impacted by both its size and your location – you may still elect to be tied into your local utility company’s power grid.  That way, you can  access any additional power you still might need or you can sell any excess energy you generate into the grid for others to use.  The utility company meter at your home or business will measure how much energy is used, and how much is generated by your solar panels.  That way, you can monitor your solar energy system and know whether it is generating enough energy to fully meet your needs or whether you are still taking some power from the electric grid.