What is Solar Energy?

Thu, 2011-01-06 18:50

Do you want to be a part of an industry projected to expand from $7 billion to somewhere between $30 billion and $69.3 billion by 2020? Then you need to understand solar energy. Even in our downtrodden economy, the solar industry is growing between 20 and 25 percent annually. Solar energy achieves a sustainable future by considering the Three-P’s of People, Planet and Profit.

So what are the nuts and bolts of solar?

Sunburns, garden fresh vegetables and warm summer lakes all rely on the energy provided by the sun. In fact, it is this solar radiation that makes our planet habitable. However, in the industrial context, solar energy is an alternative source of power that converts the sun’s energy into electricity. We do this by three primary means – passive solar, photovoltaic solar and solar thermal.

What’s Cooking In Today’s Solar Kitchen?

At the smallest scale, we can construct a building using passive solar energy to reduce heating, cooling and electricity costs. Using passive solar energy means that windows, rooftops, walls and floors are designed to distribute solar energy as heat in the winter and reject solar energy in the summer. It is important to consider the local climate for passive solar to succeed.

Mid-size commercial and residential installments are what we typically think of when we think of solar energy. These rooftop solar panels are known as photovoltaic systems, and they convert direct sunlight into a stream of electrons to produce electricity. These rigid panels are often installed in standard 3-foot by 4-foot sections and currently provide power at rates between $0.19 and $0.32/kWh (as compared to fossil fuels, which provide power at about $0.09/kWh).

At the other end of the spectrum we have the power plants of solar energy. Solar-thermal systems collect radiant heat using enormous parabolic mirrors to direct and intensify the concentration of sunlight and are often called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) systems. This concentrated radiant energy, or heat, is then used to create the super-heated steam that spins a turbine to produce electricity. To give you an idea of the possibilities for solar-thermal, Solargenix Energy is building a plant in the Nevada desert which produces enough energy to power 250,000 homes (approximately 1000 MW) and provides 7000 construction jobs and keeps 500 permanent jobs.

Shedding Some Light On The Future of Solar

Thin-film solar cells are expected to power the next wave of solar installations. Thin-film solar deposits semiconductor materials, such as cadmium or tellurium, on any flexible material. This allows them to be applied to virtually any surface, from roofing shingles, to vinyl siding, to light fixtures, to backpacks or portable electric device charging pads. Many of these applications already exist.

The future of solar looks bright (excuse the pun) for many reasons.

  • First, since solar energy has been around since the 1970s, it has the benefit of experience. We have scientists, technicians and consumers to facilitate its installation.
  • Second, it benefits from generous government subsidies in the form of tax credits for solar installations and is very popular with policymakers.
  • Third, it is the most versatile and modular of the alternative energy options.
  • Finally, the prospects of thin-film solar should reduce the installation costs and increase the number of applications for solar energy. This will drive the cost down as more and more people install solar.

The possibilities are endless. Solar offers a beacon of light for a bright future of energy independence, environmental sustainability and economic profitability.

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