What is solar power?
Solar is the Latin word for sun—a powerful source of energy that can be used to heat, cool, and light our homes and businesses. That’s because more energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year. A variety of technologies convert sunlight to usable energy for buildings. The most commonly used solar technologies for homes and businesses are solar water heating, passive solar design for space heating and cooling, and solar photovoltaic for electricity.
Solar Heating process
Commercial and industrial buildings may use the same solar technologies—photovoltaic, passive heating, day lighting, and water heating—that are used for residential buildings. These residential buildings can also use solar energy technologies that would be impractical for a home. These technologies include ventilation air preheating, solar process heating and solar cooling.
Many large buildings need ventilated air to maintain indoor air quality. In cold climates, heating this air can use large amounts of energy. But a solar ventilation system can preheat the air, saving both energy and money.
Solar water-heating systems are designed to provide large quantities of hot water for residential buildings. A typical system includes solar collectors that work along with a pump, heat exchanger, and/or one or more large storage tanks. The two main types of solar collectors used for residential buildings—an evacuated-tube collector and a linear concentrator—can operate at high temperatures with high efficiency. An evacuated-tube collector is a set of many double-walled, glass tubes and reflectors to heat the fluid inside the tubes.
Solar cells, also called photovoltaic (PV) cells by scientists, convert sunlight directly into electricity. PV gets its name from the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage), which is called the PV effect. The PV effect was discovered in 1954, when scientists at Bell Telephone discovered that silicon (an element found in sand) created an electric charge when exposed to sunlight.
Soon solar cells were being used to power space satellites and smaller items like calculators and watches. Today, thousands of people power their homes and businesses with individual solar PV systems. Utility companies are also using PV technology for large power stations. Solar panels used to power homes and businesses are typically made from solar cells combined into modules that hold about 40 cells.
A typical home will use about 10 to 20 solar panels to power the home. The panels are mounted at a fixed angle facing south, or they can be mounted on a tracking device that follows the sun, allowing them to capture the most sunlight. Many solar panels combined together to create one system is called a solar array. For large electric utility or industrial applications, hundreds of solar arrays are interconnected to form a large utility-scale PV system.
Traditional solar cells are made from silicon, are usually flat-plate, and generally are the most efficient. Second-generation solar cells are called thin-film solar cells because they are made from amorphous silicon or nonsilicon materials such as cadmium telluride. Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. Because of their flexibility, thin film solar cells can double as rooftop shingles and tiles, building facades, or the glazing for skylights.
Third-generation solar cells are being made from a variety of new materials besides silicon, including solar inks using conventional printing press technologies, solar dyes, and conductive plastics. Some new solar cells use plastic lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a very small piece of high efficiency PV material. The PV material is more expensive, but because so little is needed, these systems are becoming cost effective for use by utilities and industry. However, because the lenses must be pointed at the sun, the use of concentrating collectors is limited to the sunniest parts of the country.