How Does Solar Power Work?

How solar power works and what the sun can do for us

We all know there's an energy crisis, and our country is always looking to find more ways to generate our own power. Clean, renewable energy sources are needed to power our homes and businesses. Solar power seems like a potential answer to these problems, but many people still don’t know much about it. Here's an overview of how solar power works.

The science of solar energy

On a clear day, 1,000 watts per square meter are generated by our sun. That's easily enough energy to power all of our homes and businesses for free, according to Scott Aldous, a former field engineer for the North Carolina Solar Center.

But we need to harness the sun's energy with solar panels, or "photovoltaic cells." Photovoltaic cells are made primarily of silicon, which is a "semiconductor," or a material that allows some flow of electricity. Aldous explains that the sun's energy hits the solar cells and breaks a few electrons free from the atoms they came from, allowing them to wander about on their own. An electric field forces the electrons to flow in a given direction, and then metal contacts at the top and bottom of the solar cell draw the current, or flow of electrons, off of the panel to be stored in a battery or used as power in someone's home.

Solar power in our world

According to Gil Knier, a scientist with NASA, solar power has been in use since the 1960s. American and Soviet satellites generated the electricity they needed to function via solar panels. From the ‘70s on, renewable energy from solar power has been used for various industrial purposes, and has gained popularity each year.

A report by the European Union's Joint Research Center Institute for Energy tells us that in 2008, solar power generated approximately only 0.02 percent of the world’s total power consumption. However, if it continues to increase at its current rate, doubling every two to three years, it will be the primary power source for the world's electricity demand in a matter of decades.

Other ways solar power can be used

Solar-powered systems are now in use to replace traditional hot water heaters. CSP, or Concentrated Solar Power, systems focus the sun's energy to boil water, which is then used to provide power.

Jeffrey Yago, a licensed professional engineer and author of the book Achieving Energy Independence, writes about hybrid solar power systems. Hybrid systems take advantage of solar power when it's available, as well as wind power, via turbines, and store both forms of energy in a battery bank. In this manner, power can be stored up for days when there is little sun or wind.

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