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What Is Solar Energy?

Photovoltaic... thermal solar power... concentrating solar.. What is solar energy, really? Learn more here.

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what is solar energy
What is solar energy?

It is energy generated by the sun after the sun's heat is collected, stored and converted into a useable form.

Sounds simple but of course, it isn't quite that easy. In order for humans to generate power from the sun, methods have to be devised to capture, store and convert heat from the sun into either thermal or electrical energy.

It is true that our world has relied on solar energy since the beginning. We rely upon the light it provides during the day as well as the natural heat for drying and staying physically warm.

Over the centuries science has advanced and provided more ways to utilize solar energy. Once we were able to develop glass lenses humans discovered an easy way to start fire. By concentrating the sun through a lens on a specific point the heat would be magnified causing a natural combustion fire from the intense heat.

It is interesting to note that one of the most promising renewable solar technologies today is concentrated solar power.

What Is Solar Energy Really?

The two most common forms of renewable solar energy today are concentrating solar energy and photovoltaic solar energy.

Concentrating solar energy relies on the use of mirrors or lenses. Different techniques like rotating parabolic dishes are used to track the sun and focus its light. These tracking systems are designed to capture a large area of sunlight and then through the use of mirrors or lenses to concentrate it into a small beam. The resulting concentrated heat is used to heat a working fluid that powers a generator or special heat motor to generate power or to store the heat energy for later use.

Photovoltaic solar power uses photovoltaic cells (also referred to as solar cells) to convert light into electric current. It is the direct conversion of light into electricity. Some materials (semiconductors) exhibit a special property that causes them to absorb photons of light and release electrons. When these free electrons are captured an electric current results that can be used as electricity.

Solar cells are made of the same kinds of semiconductor materials, such as silicon, used in the microelectronics industry. For solar cells, a thin semiconductor wafer is specially treated to form an electric field, positive on one side and negative on the other. When light energy strikes the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms in the semiconductor material.

If electrical conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides, forming an electrical circuit, the electrons can be captured in the form of an electric current -- that is, electricity. This electricity can then be used to power a load, such as a light or a tool.

Another commonly used term is thermal solar energy. Thermal solar power is simply the technique when the sun's energy is used to heat up water, rather than to generate electricity). This is done by the use of a solar collector, for example for heating your swimming pool water.

Solar collectors can be more or less efficient. The high-temperature collectors use concentrating solar energy (as explained above) to produce heat.

Two other terms you might have heard are passive and active solar energy. We explain the difference between those to concepts here.

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