For most people, their first experience with solar energy comes from school, generally in the form of a calculator that uses solar cells for power. It’s amazing that from that early experience until today there has unfolded a full spectrum of what this plentiful renewable resource is capable of.
To better understand this form of energy, let’s take a look at what solar energy is capable of doing and how does it work.
Let’s first take a look at the basics of how this renewable energy source can help. Solar power involves using free power collected from the heat and light and using it for many uses in homes and at work.
Our Sun: The Source
Of course, the big key to the question, how does solar energy work, is the energy from the sun. This is one huge source of free energy that has been available to mankind everywhere… well – forever. A very minuscule portion of the energy from the sun is actually harnessed by people according to studies that have been conducted. This is mainly because some people in developed countries have all the power they require that they do not see the point in harnessing energy from the sun while other countries do not have the technology required to do it.
A lot of solar energy hits the Earth; more, in fact, than we can possibly use! It’s estimated the earth absorbs 174 pettawatts of solar radiation. The actual amount of energy that hits the planet every minute is much greater than the amount of energy we use through fossil fuels like coal each year and is more than enough free energy to power every house in the world. The challenge, of course, is learning to harness that energy.
Absorbing The Energy
So, how do we absorb all that energy for use in practical applications? Many people use solar energy even without realizing that they are using it as it has been used for so many years. One of the first ingenious uses of energy from the sun was back in the 17th century when explorers harnessed energy from the sun using collection boxes and used the heat to cook food.
It can still be used that way today. For instance, a solar cooker is usually a box with a transparent lid that reflects light into it, which absorbs a lot of energy, much like a car sitting in the sun might. This in turn heats the inside of the box to temperatures high enough to cook food, making use of the ambient solar energy to perform the same activities in a stove. This is just one answer that is particularly critical in impoverished areas where fuel for cooking fires is not readily available. From the prepper perspective, it means we can have a source of energy to cook our food in case of an electrical grid failure.
Absorbing In Different Ways: Photovoltaic Cells
Understanding how solar energy can be used for cooking doesn’t quite answer the question, how does solar energy work, with respect to electricity. The answer to this question is through photovoltaic cells. In essence, the way these power cells work is similar to the way it works in a cooker; that is, solar energy is absorbed in order to create an effect.
But in this case, instead of just heating, special cells made of conductive material, called photovoltaic cells, absorb the energy, which knocks electrons loose from atoms and results in a small electrical charge. The resulting electricity, in the form of direct current, can be converted to alternating current, which American households use.
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It Has Some Matter
It used to be thought that energy had no inherent matter of its own, but what solar energy is composed of is more than just light. That light contains tiny particles called photons, and weren’t really understood much until Albert Einstein came up with a theory to explain why light was able to interact with matter, causing electrons to come loose from matter when light hit a surface. This interaction of light and matter, in fact, is what makes solar energy generate electricity in that previously mentioned calculator. When the light strikes the photovoltaic cells, the electrons that come loose are usable as electricity.
It Can Create Other Forms Of Energy
Another great thing about solar energy is that the energy, known as radiant energy, can be converted to other forms of energy as well. For instance, when sunlight hits a car that’s been sitting in the sun, that car grows to be very hot inside, which can be uncomfortable when you get in. But if you had, for instance, a tank of water that you wanted heated, and it was able to absorb solar energy, then you have a hot water heater that works pretty well during the day. Using solar water heaters is becoming another common application of solar energy. I noticed this use of solar energy was quite commonplace in Barbados, for example. Nearly every house had solar panels on their roof to heat water.
In the past, this was the only way to have a hot water system when there was no power to run a water heater. Today, solar energy can be used to heat up portable camp showers, which consist of light, clear plastic bags designed to allow solar energy in to heat water that’s been used to fill the bag. Solar energy is also used in thermal power plants, which uses heat energy to create steam, which then drives an electrical generator. While more often, fossil fuels are used to accomplish this, there are plants that use solar energy to accomplish this.
A major draw back in the use of solar energy is that parts of the earth only receive sun rays at specific times based on the weather, the location and the season. This means that people have to collect all the energy that they require in the period when the sun rays reach the earth and then store that energy into batteries for later use.
It Is Renewable
Above all, solar energy is what we would call a renewable resource; that is, even if we were to use all the solar energy that hit the Earth, which is not likely the sun just keeps producing more of it for us to use. Solar energy is a plentiful resource, and one that won’t run out for millions of years. So, its in our best interests to learn to harness this energy resource so we can reduce our dependency on finite resources and have an alternative source of energy in case the power grid fails.