Did you know the world’s energy needs for one year can be covered by the sun generating power for only one minute? In fact, within 24 hours the Sun is able to generate more energy than the entire population would consume in 27 years.
Thus, solar energy is not only a truly reliable and lasting energy source but also a very cost-effective and efficient one, if the chosen types of solar panels and the environment are perfectly matched to one another. Such promising prospects have grown in an industry that has put a lot of effort into developing efficient techniques to generate, use, and store the sun’s energy by using different types of solar panels and converting the sunlight into valuable electricity.
Solar technologies convert sunlight into electrical energy either through photovoltaic (PV) panels or through mirrors that concentrate solar radiation. This energy can be used to generate electricity or be stored in batteries or thermal storage.
Solar energy is actually nothing new. People have used solar power as far back in history as the 7th century B.C. In its most primitive state, energy from the sun has been revered and put to use almost as long as man has walked the earth.
In 1839, French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with a cell made of metal electrodes in a conducting solution. He noted that the cell produced more electricity when it was exposed to light.
Later in 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium could function as a photoconductor.
Just three years later, in 1876 William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day applied the photovoltaic principle discovered by Becquerel to selenium. They recorded that it could, in fact, generate electricity when exposed to light.
Almost 50 years after the photovoltaic effect’s discovery, in 1883, American inventor Charles Fritz created the first working selenium solar cell. Though we use silicon in cells for modern solar panels, this solar cell was a major precursor to the technology used today.
In a way, many physicists played a part in solar cell invention. Becquerel is attributed with uncovering the potential of the photovoltaic effect, and Fritz with actually creating the ancestor to all solar cells.
Albert Einstein had a role to play in bringing the world’s attention to solar energy and its potential. In 1905, Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect and how light carries energy. This generated more attention and acceptance for solar power on a broader scale.
The big leap toward the solar cells like the ones used in panels today came from the work of Bell Labs in 1954. Three scientists there, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson, created a more practical solar cell using silicon.
Advantages to silicon are better efficiency and its wide availability as a natural resource.
As the space age developed, solar panels were used to power various parts of spacecraft throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. The first was the Vanguard I satellite in 1958, followed by Vanguard II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3.
In 1964, NASA launched the Nimbus satellite, which ran entirely on its 470-watt photovoltaic solar panel array. It wouldn’t be long now until solar energy’s potential moved from outer space to homes and businesses on planet earth.
In the 1970s, an oil shortage brought awareness of U.S. dependency on foreign energy resources. It was a time of high inflation when Americans were squeezed economically, and shortages in essentials made the need for further innovation glaringly evident.
It was during this time that president Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed onto the White House roof. This was a statement to make clean energy through solar more tangible for people, and to spread awareness.
Even with more people interested in solar over recent decades, cost and efficiency have slowly been improving. As solar panels are built to be more efficient and to cost less, solar has become a realistic way for everyday people to generate power for their homes and businesses.
Perhaps the most significant leaps forward for solar, in both efficiency and price, have been in the past several years.
Solar cell improvements based on Becquerel’s initial uncovering of the photovoltaic effect brought early solar panels to about 1 percent efficiency and around $300 per watt. It cost about $2 – $3 per watt to generate electricity from coal at the time.
Bell Labs’ 1954 silicon solar cells operated at around 4 percent efficiency and later achieved 11 percent efficiency. This was a significant increase that enabled powering an electric device for several hours for the first time in history.
Then in 1959, Hoffman Electronics achieved 10 percent efficiency. Soon after, they beat their own record with 14 percent efficiency in 1960.
These efficiency upgrades helped push solar panels into the space program. The use of solar panels in the space program through the 1960s increased production and slowly the price reduced to around $100 per watt.
Exxon funded Dr. Elliot Berman’s research in the 1970s, which produced a less expensive solar cell, and brought solar panel cost down to about $20 per watt.
Currently, solar panels for home average between 15 and 18 percent efficiency and can cost as low as $0.50 per watt.
With the long history of solar technology, it’s notable that the real sea change for solar has been in the past few decades. Since the 1980s, the cost of solar panels has dropped 10 percent per year on average.
These improvements in solar technology and cost reduction are thanks to scientists and engineers dedicated to solar as a leading source of clean, low-cost electricity for everyone.
Solar energy has the least negative impact on the environment compared to any other energy source. It does not produce greenhouse gases and does not pollute the water. It also requires very little water for its maintenance, unlike nuclear power plants for example, needing 20 times more water. Solar energy production does not create any noise, which is major benefit, since a lot of solar installations are in urban areas, such as domestic solar panels.
Generating your own electricity means that you will be using less from the utility supplier. This will immediately translate to savings on your energy bill. Plus, you can also make money by selling the unused electricity, which you have generated, back to the grid. Through solar panel grants offered, you can make your green investment even more beneficial.
Energy demand tends to be higher in the 11:00-16:00 time frame and then early in the evening. Naturally, this is the period when the price of the electricity peaks. Solar energy happens to reach its maximum production capacity during those hours.
Electricity produced at that time has higher value than if it was generated at night.
As long as there is sunshine, solar energy can be deployed anywhere. This is particularly useful for remote regions with no access to any other source of electricity. There is a vast amount of people around the world with no access to electricity.
Independent solar systems could be deployed in those regions and improve the lives of millions of people. Moreover, solar energy is also used to power up spacecrafts and boats.
Some of the energy, around 3-5%, is lost during transportation and distribution. The longer the distances between the production and the supply points, the more energy is lost. Those losses might not seem significant but they can influence the performance of the installation in regions with high population density.
Having solar panels on the roof or in the yard significantly reduces this distance, therefore increasing the efficiency of the solar panels.
The grid is less vulnerable to blackouts if there are many power plants which are spread out. A grid with high penetration of solar energy has thousands of energy production centres which are widely spread out. This improves the security of the grid in case of overload, natural or human-caused disasters.
The are many advantages of solar energy, and another one is job creation. Large part of the cost associated with solar systems comes from the installation of the panels. This contributes to local job creation. Using solar systems boosts the economy and positively affects the local community.
The initial cost of purchasing a solar system is fairly high. This includes paying for solar panels, inverter, batteries, wiring, and the installation. Nevertheless, solar technologies are constantly developing, so it is safe to assume that prices will go down in the future.
Although solar energy can still be collected during cloudy and rainy days, the efficiency of the solar system drops. Solar panels are dependent on sunlight to effectively gather solar energy. Therefore, a few cloudy, rainy days can have a noticeable effect on the energy system. You should also take into account that solar energy cannot be collected during the night.
Solar energy has to be used right away, or it can be stored in large batteries. These batteries, used in off-the-grid solar systems, can be charged during the day so that the energy is used at night. This is a good solution for using solar energy all day long but it is also quite expensive.
The more electricity you want to produce, the more solar panels you will need, as you want to collect as much sunlight as possible. Solar PV panels require a lot of space and some roofs are not big enough to fit the number of solar panels that you would like to have.
Although pollution related to solar energy systems is far less compared to other sources of energy, solar energy can be associated with pollution. Transportation and installation of solar systems have been associated with the emission of greenhouse gases.
There are also some toxic materials and hazardous products used during the manufacturing process of solar photovoltaic systems, which can indirectly affect the environment.
Nevertheless, solar energy pollutes far less than other alternative energy sources.
The three different types of solar panels are monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film solar panels. Each of these types of solar cells is made in a unique way and has a different aesthetic appearance.
Monocrystalline solar panels are the oldest type of solar panel and the most developed. These monocrystalline solar panels are made from about 40 of the monocrystalline solar cells. These solar cells are made from pure silicon. In the manufacturing process, a silicon crystal is placed in a vat of molten silicon. The crystal is then pulled up out of the vat very slowly, allowing for the molten silicon to form a solid crystal shell around it called an ingot. The ingot is then sliced thinly into silicon wafers. The wafer is made into the cell, and then the cells are assembled together to form a solar panel. Monocrystalline solar cells appear black because of the way sunlights interacts with pure silicon. While the cells are black, there’s a variety of colors and designs for the back sheets and frames. The monocrystalline cells are shaped like a square with the corners removed, so there are small gaps between the cells.
Polycrystalline solar panels are a newer development, but they are rising quickly in popularity and efficiency. Just like monocrystalline solar panels, polycrystalline cells are made from silicon. But polycrystalline cells are made from fragments of the silicon crystal melted together. During the manufacturing process, the silicon crystal is placed in a vat of molten silicon. Instead of pulling it out slowly, this crystal is allowed to fragment and then cool. Then once the new crystal is cooled in its mold, the fragmented silicon is thinly sliced into polycrystalline solar wafers. These wafers are assembled together to form a polycrystalline panel.
Polycrystalline cells are blue in color because of the way sunlight reflects on the crystals. Sunlight reflects off of silicon fragments differently than it does with a pure silicon cell. Usually the back frames and frames are silver with polycrystalline, but there can be variation. The shape of the cell is a square, and there are no gaps between corners of cells.
Thin-film solar panels are an extremely new development in the solar panel industry. The most distinguishing feature of thin-film panels is that they aren’t always made from silicon. They can be made from a variety of materials, including cadmium telluride (CdTe), amorphous silicon (a-Si), and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS). These solar cells are created by placing the main material between thin sheets of conductive material with a layer of glass on top for protection. The a-Si panels do use silicon, but they use non-crystalline silicon and are also topped with glass.
As their name suggests, thin-film panels are easy to identify by their thin appearance. These panels are approximately 350 times thinner than those that use silicon wafers. But thin-film frames can be large sometimes, and that can make the appearance of the entire solar system comparable to that of a monocrystalline or polycrystalline system. Thin-film cells can be black or blue, depending on the material they were made from.
Although the geographical area of a solar installation plays a part in how much sunlight solar panels receive, many locations around the world receive less sun but still thrive in the solar industry.
Peak sun hours only account for a fraction of the time solar arrays capture sunlight. Although these hours yield the most solar energy, they do not account for all the light the sun provides.
The pitch of the home plays a part in solar panel orientation. The term pitch means the angle of the roof. The number of inches the roof rises for every 12 inches it extends horizontally determines the pitch. Homes with steep or flat roofs require extra effort. A rooftop with a pitch within standard design and installation procedures doesn’t require special equipment, making it easier and cheaper to install: Yes, having a boring, non-haphazard roof can play to your financial benefit!
The perfect roof pitch for solar panels equals the latitude of the location of the installation. However, if this angle isn’t possible, pitch angles between 30 and 45 degrees will work. Having solar panels at the perfect angle increases the production of the solar array. For this reason, flat-roofed homes are ideal.
Homes with flat roofs need different mounting systems. Ballasted mounts often hold solar panels in place on flat roofs. However, they also provide flexibility for solar panel tilt. These mounts have racking set at the perfect angle for the latitude of the home. Cement blocks hold these in place.
Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, solar panels do best when they face south. South-facing solar panels always face the sun, which means they never have a shadow cast on them. Although south-facing solar modules provide the best results, east and west-facing solar panels also produce a sizable amount of energy. Since objects facing the north have more shade, solar panel placement should never go on the north side of a roof.
A tree in the wrong spot can cause module production problems. Solar panels need as much sun as possible. Objects like chimneys, trees, and adjacent buildings casting a shadow over the ideal locations for installation make the installation more difficult.
The shape of a house plays a significant role in whether solar will work. The ideal shape of a home for residential solar includes a roof with large amounts of space facing east, west, or south. Some homes have lots of room, but the home mostly faces north or has objects that take up space or shade the area. Other roofs have space spread across several angles, making it difficult to wire a string of solar panels.
An average residential solar panel measures 65 by 39 inches, which equals approximately 17.5 square feet for one solar panel. An average roof has about 3,000 square feet of space. If nothing shades the home, all the pitches meet solar panel tolerances, and no portion of the roof faces north, a typical roof could hold up to 171 solar panels. However, at least one of these factors often takes place, reducing the solar potential of the rooftop.
Many roofing styles exist out there. Some roofs have very steep pitches, making it hard to install solar panels. Other homes face south, meaning solar panels function best on the front. However, the pitch and direction of the home don’t comprise everything that goes into a roof’s solar viability. Different types of shingles can also make installing solar difficult.
Common rooftop shingles include asphalt, tile, wood, shake, slate, composite, rubber, copper, and metal. Some options, like shake and wood, require extra care, but it’s possible. The age of the roof also matters in the securing of the mounting and racking of the solar modules once installed.
With a total capacity of 2.25 GW across 14,000 acres, Bhadla Solar Park in India is the largest solar farm in the world to date. Located in the village of Bhadla in the Jodhpur District of Rajasthan, this project is the 1 solar farm in the world.
This 2.2 GW solar farm in the Qinghai Province of China, developed by state-owned utility company Huanghe Hydropower Development, went online in September 2020. Long term, the plan is for this project’s capacity to reach a staggering 16 GW. The plant also includes 202.8 MW/MWh of storage capacity.
Also known as the Shakti Sthala Solar Power Project, the Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka is the second-largest solar power farm in India, and the third largest in the world. Comprising 2,050 MW across 13,000+ acres of land, the project was developed by the Karnataka Solar Park Development Corporation Limited (KSPDCL) and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC).
Located in Benban, about 650 kilometers south of Cairo, the Benban Solar Park is Africa’s largest solar farm and the fourth largest in the world overall. The 1.65 GW project, owned by the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA), was completed in November 2019 at a cost of $4 billion.
China’s second entry on this list, the Tengger Desert Solar Park is located in Ningxia. The 1.55 GW solar farm occupies 1,200 km of the 36,700 km Tengger Desert. The project, owned by China National Grid and Zhongwei Power Supply Company, went online in 2017 and now supplies solar energy for over 600,000 homes.
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