What is Solar Energy?
The global spike in energy costs has led many to find alternative and sustainable fuel sources. There are many options available today including wind, solar and hydropower. Of the three, solar is the fastest growing, and almost everyone can learn to capture its power to perform tasks like cooking; lighting, heating, and many other household chores. Two of the key reasons many invest in harnessing the sun is to get energy for heating water in homes and to generate electricity.
By definition, solar energy is energy derived from the sun. The energy can be used directly to heat, and light homes or it can be converted into electricity using solar energy technologies like solar panels. People are increasingly investing in solar energy to save on out-of-pocket costs and get rid of dangerous and expensive power lines.
Solar energy i.e. energy from the sun provide consistent and steady source of solar power throughout the year. As our non-renewable resources are set to decline in the years to come, it is important for us to move towards renewable sources of energy like wind, hydropower, biomass and tidal. The main benefit of solar energy is that it can be easily deployed by both home and business users as it does not require any huge set up like in case of wind or geothermal power. Solar energy not only benefits individual owners, but also benefit environment as well. Solar energy is one of the most widely used renewable energy source.
Learn more about solar energy:
I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.
– Thomas Edison
Various Advantages of Solar Energy
There are many advantages that solar energy has to offer over traditional sources of energy like coal and oil. Not only it is completely renewable but is also protects the environment. Here are some of the advantages of solar energy.
It’s a renewable resource
Solar energy is a renewable source of energy as it can be used to produce electricity as long as the sun exists. Sunshine occurs naturally. As long as we are alive, we are always going to see the sun, which means it is infinite. This energy can be harnessed by installing solar panels that can reduce our dependence on other countries for consistent supply of coal to produce electricity. This makes it an attractive energy prospect for most countries that are looking to go completely green in the future.
Although solar energy can not be produced during night and cloudy days but it can be used again and again during day time. Solar energy from sun is consistent and constant power source and can be used to harness power even in remote locations.
If you are scavenging the internet in search of ways to minimize your carbon footprints, solar energy is the surefire answer. Solar energy will not only help you dial back on your carbon footprint, but also oversize your systems to ensure you live in a carbon-free house. Some states in the U.S. even allow individuals to invest in other people’s roofs to create a lot more solar energy.
Solar energy is an alternative for fossil fuels as it is non-polluting, clean, reliable and renewable source of energy. It does not pollute the air by releasing harmful gases like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide or sulphur oxide. So, the risk of damage to the environment is reduced. Solar energy also does not require any fuel to produce electricity and thus avoids the problem of transportation of fuel or storage of radioactive waste.
Cuts back on electricity bill
One of the most interesting things about solar energy is that it can help you minimize your annoying utility bills. You can accomplish this by installing solar panels in your home. Solar energy takes up energy consuming activities like heating water and heating homes. Solar energy has the potential to save you up to 20% of your energy costs, even after financing costs are factored in. And with the ever rocketing of electricity costs, you could save up to $60,000 in the next 30 years.
Can enhance the value of a home
If you are looking to sell your home in the future, suffice to know that installation of solar technologies can significantly increase its value. This especially manifests in areas where buyers are more likely to buy a home installed with solar panels like high populated cities where environmental degradation is taken seriously by the authorities. According to research findings, solar panels can add up to $20,000 to the value of a house. This figure represents the amount required to install a solar panel, which means you will be able to recoup your money when you sell the property. That represents a bright investment in your property.
Requires little maintenance
The cost of installing a solar panel can be high. But once it’s up and running, you will enjoy the benefits for many years, while injecting just a small amount for its maintenance. If your energy needs change and you desire to add more panels, it would be a lot easier. Initial cost that is incurred once can be recovered in the long run that range from 10 years – 15 years. Apart from this, solar panels does not create any noise or release any toxic substances.
Solar panels are easy to install and does not require any wires, cords or power sources. Unlike wind and geothermal power stations which require them to be tied with drilling machines, solar panels does not require them and can be installed on the rooftops which means no new space is needed and each home or business user can generate their own electricity. Moreover, they can be installed in distributed fashion which means no large scale installations are needed.
With the advancement in the technology and increase in the production, the cost of solar panels have come down slightly. Areas where cost of electricity is high, payback times can be even lower.
Can Be Used in Remote Locations
Solar energy can be of great boon in areas which have no access to power cables. It works great in remote locations where running power lines would be difficult or costly. Solar panels can set up to produce solar energy there as long as it receives the sunlight.
Comes with money back guarantee
Besides saving up a lot on your utility bills, you might get a big portion of your money back by installing solar panels. Most governments give tax credits to homeowners in a bid to encourage the use of solar energy. These tax credits mostly cover more than 30% of the installation cost. Lots of states also extend tax rebates to homeowners that utilize solar energy. To add to that, if your solar panel generates more than enough energy, utility companies allow you to sell back the energy to them.
Long Lasting Solar Cells
Solar cells make no noise at all and there are no moving parts in solar cells which makes them long lasting and require very little maintenance. Solar energy provides cost effective solutions to energy problems where there is no electricity at all.
Top 5 Common Examples of Solar Energy
Solar energy is growing fast, and more people are taking advantage of this free and renewable resource. Its efficiency also continues to increase, rendering it a lot more attractive to businesses and industries. Some common examples of solar energy include?
Solar water heating
Many are not fully aware that solar water heaters and solar space heaters are cost-effective and efficient ways of heating homes without having to go the expensive route of installing solar panels. Solar space heaters capture the sun’s energy and turn it into thermal energy with the aid of air or liquid medium. Solar water heaters, on the other hand, make use of water as a means of thermal transfer.
Solar heating systems are come as active or passive. Active systems make use of pumps in order to allow movement of water, hence, generation of heat. Passive systems, on the other hand, use natural circulation. One aspect that makes thermal heating systems stand above other heating systems like oil and gas pumps is the capability to heat an entire swimming pool at an insanely inexpensive rate.
Solar cells are used to power many things ranging from calculators to entire businesses. Although small cells have been used over the years to power tiny things like calculators, the past few years has witnessed large cells making inroads into the marketplace. Large cells have the capacity to power entire homes. They are cool sources of energy due to their friendliness to the environment. They are also long lasting; require minimal maintenance and are cost-effective in the long run.
Electronics these days come with features that can enable charging using solar energy. A common example is the solar powered charger that is able to charge any electronic from tablets to cell phones. Solar powered flashlights also exist today that are able to be charged just by exposure to sunlight. As more emphasis is being placed on solar energy, there is no shadow of doubt that solar will continue to be embraced by lots of people for products that can be powered by sunlight. A typical example where solar energy has successfully been used to power an electronic device is the Apple smart watch. Unlike a conventional watch, an Apple smart watch doesn’t need to be plugged in to recharge every day
Most homeowners enhance the aesthetic value and efficiency of their homes by incorporating outdoor solar lighting. Unlike conventional exterior lighting, solar lighting does not need sophisticated set up because the lights come with wireless technology and capture the sun’s energy during the day to alleviate the need for traditionally supplied electricity during the night.
While solar lights have not been as popular as solar panels, they are fast catching up with smart home thermostats and LED light bulbs as energy efficient products that can help bring down energy bills. On top of that, solar lighting comes with a whole lot of elaborate lighting arrays that can substantially enhance the outdoor appearance of any property. These lighting products are cheap ($20 per light) and easily obtainable at local retail shops. The low cost and ready availability aspects are the reason for the proliferation of street lights today.
Due to the huge array of gadgets available on the market today, most disregard the most vital use of solar energy, which is rooftop solar. While solar power has many uses including charging batteries and fly airplanes, it can also play a critical role of dialing back on carbon footprints and energy bills. A rooftop solar can save a homeowner thousands of dollars each year.
When exploring ways to change up to solar energy, make a point to do an estimate of your potential solar savings and ascertain the effects investment in solar technology could do for your home finances. Embracing tiny products and home improvement devices to enhance your home’s efficiency is a bright practice. However, in the long run, the best bet to lower your energy bills and improve your carbon footprint lies in the installation of a solar panel.
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Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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For the academic journal, see Solar Energy (journal). For the generation of electricity using solar energy, see Solar power.
Solar energy is radiant light and heat from the Sun that is harnessed using a range of ever-evolving technologies such as solar heating, photovoltaics, solar thermal energy, solar architecture, molten salt power plants and artificial photosynthesis.
It is an important source of renewable energy and its technologies are broadly characterized as either passive solar or active solar depending on how they capture and distribute solar energy or convert it into solar power. Active solar techniques include the use of photovoltaic systems, concentrated solar power and solar water heating to harness the energy. Passive solar techniques include orienting a building to the Sun, selecting materials with favorable thermal mass or light-dispersing properties, and designing spaces that naturally circulate air.
The large magnitude of solar energy available makes it a highly appealing source of electricity. The United Nations Development Programme in its 2000 World Energy Assessment found that the annual potential of solar energy was 1,575–49,837 exajoules (EJ). This is several times larger than the total world energy consumption, which was 559.8 EJ in 2012.
In 2011, the International Energy Agency said that "the development of affordable, inexhaustible and clean solar energy technologies will have huge longer-term benefits. It will increase countries’ energy security through reliance on an indigenous, inexhaustible and mostly import-independent resource, enhance sustainability, reduce pollution, lower the costs of mitigating global warming, and keep fossil fuel prices lower than otherwise. These advantages are global. Hence the additional costs of the incentives for early deployment should be considered learning investments; they must be wisely spent and need to be widely shared".
Further information: Solar radiation
The Earth receives 174 petawatts (PW) of incoming solar radiation (insolation) at the upper atmosphere. Approximately 30% is reflected back to space while the rest is absorbed by clouds, oceans and land masses. The spectrum of solar light at the Earth's surface is mostly spread across the visible and near-infrared ranges with a small part in the near-ultraviolet. Most of the world's population live in areas with insolation levels of 150–300 watts/m², or 3.5–7.0 kWh/m² per day.
Solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth's land surface, oceans – which cover about 71% of the globe – and atmosphere. Warm air containing evaporated water from the oceans rises, causing atmospheric circulation or convection. When the air reaches a high altitude, where the temperature is low, water vapor condenses into clouds, which rain onto the Earth's surface, completing the water cycle. The latent heat of water condensation amplifies convection, producing atmospheric phenomena such as wind, cyclones and anti-cyclones. Sunlight absorbed by the oceans and land masses keeps the surface at an average temperature of 14 °C. By photosynthesis, green plants convert solar energy into chemically stored energy, which produces food, wood and the biomass from which fossil fuels are derived.
The total solar energy absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year. In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world used in one year. Photosynthesis captures approximately 3,000 EJ per year in biomass. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will ever be obtained from all of the Earth's non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined,
The potential solar energy that could be used by humans differs from the amount of solar energy present near the surface of the planet because factors such as geography, time variation, cloud cover, and the land available to humans limit the amount of solar energy that we can acquire.
Geography affects solar energy potential because areas that are closer to the equator have a greater amount of solar radiation. However, the use of photovoltaics that can follow the position of the sun can significantly increase the solar energy potential in areas that are farther from the equator. Time variation effects the potential of solar energy because during the nighttime there is little solar radiation on the surface of the Earth for solar panels to absorb. This limits the amount of energy that solar panels can absorb in one day. Cloud cover can affect the potential of solar panels because clouds block incoming light from the sun and reduce the light available for solar cells.
In addition, land availability has a large effect on the available solar energy because solar panels can only be set up on land that is otherwise unused and suitable for solar panels. Roofs have been found to be a suitable place for solar cells, as many people have discovered that they can collect energy directly from their homes this way. Other areas that are suitable for solar cells are lands that are not being used for businesses where solar plants can be established.
Solar technologies are characterized as either passive or active depending on the way they capture, convert and distribute sunlight and enable solar energy to be harnessed at different levels around the world, mostly depending on distance from the equator. Although solar energy refers primarily to the use of solar radiation for practical ends, all renewable energies, other than Geothermal power and Tidal power, derive their energy either directly or indirectly from the Sun.
Active solar techniques use photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, solar thermal collectors, pumps, and fans to convert sunlight into useful outputs. Passive solar techniques include selecting materials with favorable thermal properties, designing spaces that naturally circulate air, and referencing the position of a building to the Sun. Active solar technologies increase the supply of energy and are considered supply side technologies, while passive solar technologies reduce the need for alternate resources and are generally considered demand side technologies.
In 2000, the United Nations Development Programme, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and World Energy Council published an estimate of the potential solar energy that could be used by humans each year that took into account factors such as insolation, cloud cover, and the land that is usable by humans. The estimate found that solar energy has a global potential of 1,575–49,837 EJ per year (see table below).
|Region||North America||Latin America and Caribbean||Western Europe||Central and Eastern Europe||Former Soviet Union||Middle East and North Africa||Sub-Saharan Africa||Pacific Asia||South Asia||Centrally planned Asia||Pacific OECD|
Quantitative relation of global solar potential vs. the world's primary energy consumption:
Source:United Nations Development Programme – World Energy Assessment (2000)
Main article: Solar thermal energy
Solar thermal technologies can be used for water heating, space heating, space cooling and process heat generation.
Early commercial adaptation
In 1878, at the Universal Exposition in Paris, Augustin Mouchot successfully demonstrated a solar steam engine, but couldn't continue development because of cheap coal and other factors.
In 1897, Frank Shuman, a U.S. inventor, engineer and solar energy pioneer, built a small demonstration solar engine that worked by reflecting solar energy onto square boxes filled with ether, which has a lower boiling point than water, and were fitted internally with black pipes which in turn powered a steam engine. In 1908 Shuman formed the Sun Power Company with the intent of building larger solar power plants. He, along with his technical advisor A.S.E. Ackermann and British physicist Sir Charles Vernon Boys, developed an improved system using mirrors to reflect solar energy upon collector boxes, increasing heating capacity to the extent that water could now be used instead of ether. Shuman then constructed a full-scale steam engine powered by low-pressure water, enabling him to patent the entire solar engine system by 1912.
Shuman built the world's first solar thermal power station in Maadi, Egypt, between 1912 and 1913. His plant used parabolic troughs to power a 45–52 kilowatts (60–70 hp) engine that pumped more than 22,000 litres (4,800 imp gal; 5,800 US gal) of water per minute from the Nile River to adjacent cotton fields. Although the outbreak of World War I and the discovery of cheap oil in the 1930s discouraged the advancement of solar energy, Shuman's vision and basic design were resurrected in the 1970s with a new wave of interest in solar thermal energy. In 1916 Shuman was quoted in the media advocating solar energy's utilization, saying:
We have proved the commercial profit of sun power in the tropics and have more particularly proved that after our stores of oil and coal are exhausted the human race can receive unlimited power from the rays of the sun.
— Frank Shuman, New York Times, 2 July 1916
Main articles: Solar hot water and Solar combisystem
Solar hot water systems use sunlight to heat water. In low geographical latitudes (below 40 degrees) from 60 to 70% of the domestic hot water use with temperatures up to 60 °C can be provided by solar heating systems. The most common types of solar water heaters are evacuated tube collectors (44%) and glazed flat plate collectors (34%) generally used for domestic hot water; and unglazed plastic collectors (21%) used mainly to heat swimming pools.
As of 2007, the total installed capacity of solar hot water systems was approximately 154 thermalgigawatt (GWth). China is the world leader in their deployment with 70 GWth installed as of 2006 and a long-term goal of 210 GWth by 2020.Israel and Cyprus are the per capita leaders in the use of solar hot water systems with over 90% of homes using them. In the United States, Canada, and Australia, heating swimming pools is the dominant application of solar hot water with an installed capacity of 18 GWth as of 2005.
Heating, cooling and ventilation
Main articles: Solar heating, Thermal mass, Solar chimney, and Solar air conditioning
In the United States, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems account for 30% (4.65 EJ/yr) of the energy used in commercial buildings and nearly 50% (10.1 EJ/yr) of the energy used in residential buildings. Solar heating, cooling and ventilation technologies can be used to offset a portion of this energy.
Thermal mass is any material that can be used to store heat—heat from the Sun in the case of solar energy. Common thermal mass materials include stone, cement and water. Historically they have been used in arid climates or warm temperate regions to keep buildings cool by absorbing solar energy during the day and radiating stored heat to the cooler atmosphere at night. However, they can be used in cold temperate areas to maintain warmth as well. The size and placement of thermal mass depend on several factors such as climate, daylighting and shading conditions. When properly incorporated, thermal mass maintains space temperatures in a comfortable range and reduces the need for auxiliary heating and cooling equipment.
A solar chimney (or thermal chimney, in this context) is a passive solar ventilation system composed of a vertical shaft connecting the interior and exterior of a building. As the chimney warms, the air inside is heated causing an updraft that pulls air through the building. Performance can be improved by using glazing and thermal mass materials in a way that mimics greenhouses.
Deciduous trees and plants have been promoted as a means of controlling solar heating and cooling. When planted on the southern side of a building in the northern hemisphere or the northern side in the southern hemisphere, their leaves provide shade during the summer, while the bare limbs allow light to pass during the winter. Since bare, leafless trees shade 1/3 to 1/2 of incident solar radiation, there is a balance between the benefits of summer shading and the corresponding loss of winter heating. In climates with significant heating loads, deciduous trees should not be planted on the Equator-facing side of a building because they will interfere with winter solar availability. They can, however, be used on the east and west sides to provide a degree of summer shading without appreciably affecting winter solar gain.
Main article: Solar cooker
Solar cookers use sunlight for cooking, drying and pasteurization. They can be grouped into three broad categories: box cookers, panel cookers and reflector cookers. The simplest solar cooker is the box cooker first built by Horace de Saussure in 1767. A basic box cooker consists of an insulated container with a transparent lid. It can be used effectively with partially overcast skies and will typically reach temperatures of 90–150 °C (194–302 °F). Panel cookers use a reflective panel to direct sunlight onto an insulated container and reach temperatures comparable to box cookers. Reflector cookers use various concentrating geometries (dish, trough, Fresnel mirrors) to focus light on a cooking container. These cookers reach temperatures of 315 °C (599 °F) and above but require direct light to function properly and must be repositioned to track the Sun.
Main articles: Solar pond, Salt evaporation pond, and Solar furnace
Solar concentrating technologies such as parabolic dish, trough and Scheffler reflectors can provide process heat for commercial and industrial applications. The first commercial system was the Solar Total Energy Project (STEP) in Shenandoah, Georgia, USA where a field of 114 parabolic dishes provided 50% of the process heating, air conditioning and electrical requirements for a clothing factory. This grid-connected cogeneration system provided 400 kW of electricity plus thermal energy in the form of 401 kW steam and 468 kW chilled water, and had a one-hour peak load thermal storage. Evaporation ponds are shallow pools that concentrate dissolved solids through evaporation. The use of evaporation ponds to obtain salt from seawater is one of the oldest applications of solar energy. Modern uses include concentrating brine solutions used in leach mining and removing dissolved solids from waste streams.Clothes lines, clotheshorses, and clothes racks dry clothes through evaporation by wind and sunlight without consuming electricity or gas. In some states of the United States legislation protects the "right to dry" clothes. Unglazed transpired collectors (UTC) are perforated sun-facing walls used for preheating ventilation air. UTCs can raise the incoming air temperature up to 22 °C (40 °F) and deliver outlet temperatures of 45–60 °C (113–140 °F). The short payback period of transpired collectors (3 to 12 years) makes them a more cost-effective alternative than glazed collection systems. As of 2003, over 80 systems with a combined collector area of 35,000 square metres (380,000 sq ft) had been installed worldwide, including an 860 m2 (9,300 sq ft) collector in Costa Rica used for drying coffee beans and a 1,300 m2 (14,000 sq ft) collector in Coimbatore, India, used for drying marigolds.
Main articles: Solar still, Solar water disinfection, Solar desalination, and Solar Powered Desalination Unit
Solar distillation can be used to make saline or brackish water potable. The first recorded instance of this was by 16th-century Arab alchemists. A large-scale solar distillation project was first constructed in 1872 in the Chilean mining town of Las Salinas. The plant, which had solar collection area of 4,700 m2 (51,000 sq ft), could produce up to 22,700 L (5,000 imp gal; 6,000 US gal) per day and operate for 40 years. Individual still designs include single-slope, double-slope (or greenhouse type), vertical, conical, inverted absorber, multi-wick, and multiple effect. These stills can operate in passive, active, or hybrid modes. Double-slope stills are the most economical for decentralized domestic purposes, while active multiple effect units are more suitable for large-scale applications.
Solar water disinfection (SODIS) involves exposing water-filled plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles to sunlight for several hours. Exposure times vary depending on weather and climate from a minimum of six hours to two days during fully overcast conditions. It is recommended by the World Health Organization as a viable method for household water treatment and safe storage. Over two million people in developing countries use this method for their daily drinking water.
Solar energy may be used in a water stabilization pond to treat waste water without chemicals or electricity. A further environmental advantage is that algae grow in such ponds and consume carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, although algae may produce toxic chemicals that make the water unusable.
Molten salt technology
Molten salt can be employed as a thermal energy storage method to retain thermal energy collected by a solar tower or solar trough of a concentrated solar power plant, so that it can be used to generate electricity in bad weather or at night. It was demonstrated in the Solar Two project from 1995–1999. The system is predicted to have an annual efficiency of 99%, a reference to the energy retained by storing heat before turning it into electricity, versus converting heat directly into electricity. The molten salt mixtures vary. The most extended mixture contains sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate and calcium nitrate. It is non-flammable and nontoxic, and has already been used in the chemical and metals industries as a heat-transport fluid, so experience with such systems exists in non-solar applications.
The salt melts at 131 °C (268 °F). It is kept liquid at 288 °C (550 °F) in an insulated "cold" storage tank. The liquid salt is pumped through panels in a solar collector where the focused sun heats it to 566 °C (1,051 °F). It is then sent to a hot storage tank. This is so well insulated that the thermal energy can be usefully stored for up to a week.
When electricity is needed, the hot salt is pumped to a conventional steam-generator to produce superheated steam for a turbine/generator as used in any conventional coal, oil, or nuclear power plant. A 100-megawatt turbine would need a tank about 9.1 metres (30 ft) tall and 24 metres (79 ft) in diameter to drive it for four hours by this design.
Several parabolic trough power plants in Spain and solar power tower developer SolarReserve use this thermal energy storage concept. The Solana Generating Station in the U.S. has six hours of storage by molten salt. The María Elena plant is a 400 MW thermo-solar complex in the northern Chilean region of Antofagasta employing molten salt technology.
Main article: Solar power
Solar power is the conversion of sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP). CSP systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. PV converts light into electric current using the photoelectric effect.
Solar power is anticipated to become the world's largest source of electricity by 2050, with solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar power contributing 16 and 11 percent to the global overall consumption, respectively. In 2016, after another year of rapid growth, solar generated 1.3% of global power.
Commercial concentrated solar power plants were first developed in the 1980s. The 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, in the Mojave Desert of California, is the largest solar power plant in the world. Other large concentrated solar power plants include the 150 MW Solnova Solar Power Station and the 100 MW Andasol solar power station, both in Spain. The 250 MW Agua Caliente Solar Project, in the United States, and the 221 MW Charanka Solar Park in India, are the world's largestphotovoltaic plants. Solar projects exceeding 1 GW are being developed, but most of the deployed photovoltaics are in small rooftop arrays of less than 5 kW, which are connected to the grid using net metering and/or a feed-in tariff.
Main article: Photovoltaics
In the last two decades, photovoltaics (PV), also known as solar PV, has evolved from a pure niche market of small scale applications towards becoming a mainstream electricity source. A solar cell is a device that converts light directly into electricity using the photoelectric effect. The first solar cell was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s. In 1931 a German engineer, Dr Bruno Lange, developed a photo cell using silver selenide in place of copper oxide. Although the prototype selenium cells converted less than 1% of incident light into electricity, both Ernst Werner von Siemens and James Clerk Maxwell recognized the importance of this discovery. Following the work of Russell Ohl in the 1940s, researchers Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Daryl Chapin created the crystalline silicon solar cell in 1954. These early solar cells cost 286 USD/watt and reached efficiencies of 4.5–6%. By 2012 available efficiencies exceeded 20%, and the maximum efficiency of research photovoltaics was in excess of 40%.
Concentrated solar power
See also: Concentrated solar power
Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. The concentrated heat is then used as a heat source for a conventional power plant. A wide range of concentrating technologies exists; the most developed are the parabolic trough, the concentrating linear fresnel reflector, the Stirling dish and the solar power tower. Various techniques are used to track the Sun and focus light. In all of these systems a working fluid is heated by the concentrated sunlight, and is then used for power generation or energy storage.
Architecture and urban planning
Main articles: Passive solar building design and Urban heat island
Sunlight has influenced building design since the beginning of architectural history. Advanced solar architecture and urban planning methods were first employed by the Greeks and Chinese, who oriented their buildings toward the south to provide light and warmth.
The common features of passive solar architecture are orientation relative to the Sun, compact proportion (a low surface area to volume ratio), selective shading (overhangs) and thermal mass. When these features are tailored to the local climate and environment they can produce well-lit spaces that stay in a comfortable temperature range. Socrates' Megaron House is a classic example of passive solar design. The most recent approaches to solar design use computer modeling tying together solar lighting, heating and ventilation systems in an integrated solar design package.Active solar equipment such as pumps, fans and switchable windows can complement passive design and improve system performance.
Urban heat islands (UHI) are metropolitan areas with higher temperatures than that of the surrounding environment. The higher temperatures result from increased absorption of solar energy by urban materials such as asphalt and concrete, which have lower albedos and higher heat capacities than those in the natural environment. A straightforward method of counteracting the UHI effect is to paint buildings and roads white, and to plant trees in the area. Using these methods, a hypothetical "cool communities" program in Los Angeles has projected that urban temperatures could be reduced by approximately 3 °C at an estimated cost of US$1 billion, giving estimated total annual benefits of US$530 million from reduced air-conditioning costs and healthcare savings.
Agriculture and horticulture
Agriculture and horticulture seek to optimize the capture of solar energy in order to optimize the productivity of plants. Techniques such as timed planting cycles, tailored row orientation, staggered heights between rows and the mixing of plant varieties can improve crop yields. While sunlight is generally considered a plentiful resource, the exceptions highlight the importance of solar energy to agriculture. During the short growing seasons of the Little Ice Age, French and English farmers employed fruit walls to maximize the collection of solar energy. These walls acted as thermal masses and accelerated ripening by keeping plants warm. Early fruit walls were built perpendicular to the ground and facing south, but over time, sloping walls were developed to make better use of sunlight. In 1699, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier even suggested using a tracking mechanism which could pivot to follow the Sun. Applications of solar energy in agriculture aside from growing crops include pumping water, drying crops, brooding chicks and drying chicken manure. More recently the technology has been embraced by vintners, who use the energy generated by solar panels to power grape presses.
Greenhouses convert solar light to heat, enabling year-round production and the growth (in enclosed environments) of specialty crops and other plants not naturally suited to the local climate. Primitive greenhouses were first used during Roman times to produce cucumbers year-round for the Roman emperor Tiberius. The first modern greenhouses were built in Europe in the 16th century to keep exotic plants brought back from explorations abroad. Greenhouses remain an important part of horticulture today, and plastic transparent materials have also been used to similar effect in polytunnels and row covers.
Main articles: Solar vehicle, Solar-charged vehicle, Electric boat, and Solar balloon
Development of a solar-powered car has been an engineering goal since the 1980s. The World Solar Challenge is a biannual solar-powered car race, where teams from universities and enterprises compete over 3,021 kilometres (1,877 mi) across central Australia from Darwin to Adelaide. In 1987, when it was founded, the winner's average speed was 67 kilometres per hour (42 mph) and by 2007 the winner's average speed had improved to 90.87 kilometres per hour (56.46 mph). The North American Solar Challenge and the planned South African Solar Challenge are comparable competitions that reflect an international interest in the engineering and development of solar powered vehicles.
Some vehicles use solar panels for auxiliary power, such as for air conditioning, to keep the interior cool, thus reducing fuel consumption.
In 1975, the first practical solar boat was constructed in England. By 1995, passenger boats incorporating PV panels began appearing and are now used extensively. In 1996, Kenichi Horie made the first solar-powered crossing of the Pacific Ocean, and the Sun21 catamaran made the first solar-powered crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in the winter of 2006–2007. There were plans to circumnavigate the globe in 2010.
In 1974, the unmanned AstroFlight Sunrise airplane made the first solar flight. On 29 April 1979, the Solar Riser made the first flight in a solar-powered, fully controlled, man-carrying flying machine, reaching an altitude of 40 ft (12 m). In 1980, the Gossamer Penguin made the first piloted flights powered solely by photovoltaics. This was quickly followed by the Solar Challenger which crossed the English Channel in July 1981. In 1990 Eric Scott Raymond in 21 hops flew from California to North Carolina using solar power. Developments then turned back to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with the Pathfinder (1997) and subsequent designs, culminating in the Helios which set the altitude record for a non-rocket-propelled aircraft at 29,524 metres (96,864 ft) in 2001. The Zephyr, developed by BAE Systems, is the latest in a line of record-breaking solar aircraft, making a 54-hour flight in 2007, and month-long flights were envisioned by 2010. As of 2016, Solar Impulse, an electric aircraft, is currently circumnavigating the globe. It is a single-seat plane powered by solar cells and capable of taking off under its own power. The design allows the aircraft to remain airborne for several days.
A solar balloon is a black balloon that is filled with ordinary air. As sunlight shines on the balloon, the air inside is heated and expands causing an upward buoyancy force, much like an artificially heated hot air balloon. Some solar balloons are large enough for human flight, but usage is generally limited to the toy market as the surface-area to payload-weight ratio is relatively high.
About half the incoming solar energy reaches the Earth's surface.
Some of the world's largest solar power stations: Ivanpah (CSP) and Topaz (PV)
Middle East and Africa
Worldwide growth of PV capacity grouped by region in MW (2006–2014)