Over the past decade or so, solar power has transformed from a once-futuristic energy source to a technology accessible to homeowners everywhere.
But if you think about it, our parents and grandparents used solar power, too – remember the line they strung across the backyard to dry the laundry?
Today, the power of the sun is used in other ways. You no doubt have seen shiny solar panels perched atop rooftops in your hometown or driven past fields lined with rows of them (the latter are called solar farms; the largest solar power plant in the world can be found in California’s Mojave Dessert). These panels, also called photovoltaic panels, harness energy from the sun and convert it into an energy source consumers can use for a myriad of applications.
Years ago, power companies invited homeowners to purchase or lease solar panels for their homes. In this situation, the homeowner pays for the power produced by the panels each month, at a reduced price. Another option was for a homeowner to purchase the panels outright, meaning free electricity, tax credits and incentives, and long-time savings. The panels can last up to 25 years.
These days, a homeowner can have a solar company install these low-maintenance panels on their roof for no cost. The process begins when a homeowner monitors their electric usage for six months to a year, which tells the solar company how many panels are required to power the house. A 2,000-square-foot home, for example, could require anywhere between 12 and 18 solar panels. Once the panels are installed, they produce power for the home, with the excess going to the solar company.
During peak daytime hours, the panels can produce more energy than the home can use. The excess returns to the grid to be used elsewhere and the homeowner is credited for the excess. Then, at night or during bad weather, the homeowner can draw from that excess.
Homeowners should know that when they have solar panels installed, they most likely will be required to maintain an account with their electric company, in case there is an issue with the panels. In that case, the electric company would take over in providing power to the home.
The only downside of solar panels is that the amount of sunlight they receive depends on location, time of day, weather conditions and time of year.
There are other uses for solar power, as well, from powering the smallest appliances – the lights that line driveways, for example – to large solar generators that can power a home and other devices in case of emergency. A comparison of generators can be found at PoweredPortableSolar.com. Solar energy can power cars, trains, buses and subway cars, which reduces carbon emissions. It can charge consumer electronics, from cell phones, tablets and smartwatches to speakers and rechargeable flashlights. Solar power can effectively heat homes by powering water heaters and space heaters, and it can be used to heat pools.
Solar power also is utilized in agriculture. Solar heat collectors are used to warm livestock buildings and greenhouses, dry homes, create hot water for dairy farms and cleaning, and power water pumps and electric fences.
One extremely important use of solar power is converting saltwater to freshwater. This desalination technology could be used to provide clean drinking water to people who lack such access. Solar power, in general, is of great benefit to remote locations that are not connected to the main power grid.
One technology under development is the use of solar energy to power planes. This technology is in its initial stages; in 2015, a solar-powered aircraft undertook a flight from Abu Dhabi.
But why choose solar power over other forms of energy? Well, it is one of the cleanest and most reliable forms of renewable energy available, and unlike coal and nuclear power, it has low greenhouse emissions and does not contribute to global warming, nor does its collection create any safety issues. Solar power does not produce any pollutants and it is a renewable source of energy. From an environmental standpoint, solar power and wind power, called hydropower, are much better choices over non-renewable fossil fuels.
Solar power also is noise pollution free, as it has no moving parts and does not require anything besides sunlight to create power.
And how does it work? To understand it, start by thinking of the sun as a nuclear reactor. The sun emits photons, or tiny bits of energy, that travel to Earth in just under nine minutes. Each hour, the sun sends enough photons to generate enough solar energy to power the planet for a year.
When these photons hit silicon solar cells, many of which comprise a solar panel, electrons are bumped loose. When conductors are attached to the negative and positive sides of the cell, an electrical circuit is formed. The electrons then flow through the circuit and create electricity, which is stored in a battery.
Despite its benefits, solar energy provides just a small fraction of the world’s energy supply – about one-tenth of global energy needs. But in time, that is sure to change.