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Solar Energy: what is it and how does it work?


There’s no denying solar energy is here to stay. But what is solar power? With its increasing popularity comes the necessity of understanding how the technology works. Even a basic understanding of solar power can help you realize its benefits.

What Is Solar Power?

The sun is like a giant nuclear reactor. It releases a massive amount of energy through photons every second. These photons travel to Earth in the form of heat and light which are transformed into energy in numerous ways. The most common methods are photovoltaics or solar thermal capture.

Photovoltaics convert light into electricity in three steps:

1. They absorb light and knock electrons into motion.
2. The loose electrons create a current. 
3. Metal contacts capture and direct the current to wires.

These wires channel electricity to a solar inverter which sends energy throughout your home.

Solar thermal capture converts energy into electricity and is typically used for larger-scale needs. This technology creates three types of energy.

  • Low-temperature: Heats and cools an area or building,
  • Mid-temperature: Collects sunlight from solar panels, transferring it to your home’s water system to create hot water.
  • High-temperature: These systems create larger amounts of electricity. Using mirrors, they direct sunlight to tubes containing oil which is used to heat water. The heated water turns to steam which is powerful enough to turn a turbine and create electricity.

Pros and Cons of Solar Energy
Using solar energy has very little impact on the environment. Solar energy systems don’t produce carbon dioxide or air pollutants. A home that is powered by a coal- or gas-burning electricity plant will create over 500 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. On the other hand, a home powered by solar energy produces only 6 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. With an average home consuming over 11,000 kWh, by switching to solar, you can change your home’s annual carbon emissions from approximately 5 500 kilograms—or the weight of an African Elephant—to that of a Great Dane. To offset 5 500 kilograms of CO2 in a year would require 230 trees, while to offset the CO2 from a solar-powered home would only require three.

Solar panels mean a lower utility bill, and that makes a home more attractive on the market. Solar panels increase the property value, and those homes tend to sell faster. Often the increase in property value can cover the investment of your purchase alone, without even considering the monthly savings to the utility bill.

However, on cloudy days or at night, solar energy can’t be used without a storage device like a battery. These batteries house converted solar energy and provide electricity even if the sun isn’t out. Additionally, solar technologies can be expensive and need a large area to collect the amount of energy needed to be useful.

Despite the expense, the use of solar energy has increased 20 percent each year for the last 15 years. The increase is primarily due to cheaper installation costs and technology and efficiency gains.

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No matter how you’re looking to use solar energy, it’s important to understand how the technology works. That way you can get the most out of the technology.

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