How to Harness Solar Energy
With all the challenges we’re facing in respect to global warming and the startling increase in pollution caused by greenhouse gases, solar energy and the methods used to harness it are becoming vitally important to our future and that of our planet.
Solar energy is supplied freely by the sun, which is a constant source of energy even on the cloudiest of days. The sun supplies six thousand times more energy daily than the entire human population of the earth uses annually.
That means that there’s a whole lot of solar energy going to waste. We’ll take a look at what we’re currently doing to harness that energy and things we might consider doing in the future to harness more of the solar energy now going to waste.
Photovoltaic, or solar, panels are becoming more prevalent as more homes and businesses look to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and, consequently, the size of their utility bills by adopting this ever-evolving technology.
The “photovoltaic effect” was first discovered by Frenchman Edmund Becquerel, who found that sunlight striking silicon caused a small electrical charge to be generated.
This discovery was developed further and cells containing silicon were created and then wired together inside a glass and metal frame to produce solar panels. One or more solar panels are usually combined into what is known as an array to generate electricity for household or business use.
Photovoltaic, or PV, technology is becoming more efficient and sophisticated, and, with the introduction of thin film solar panels, the future of this type of technology looks extremely exciting and should result in solar panels becoming much more affordable.
Solar Thermal Energy
Solar thermal technology is not as commonplace as its photovoltaic cousin, but is nonetheless a vital piece in the solar energy puzzle. Solar thermal uses solar energy to heat either water or air, which is then transferred via collectors to its destination.
One common application for solar thermal is heating swimming pools, which use a system in which the pool water is recycled through the collectors and reheated.
Solar thermal is often used to provide heating for buildings, when air is usually the medium of choice. It is also used to provide air conditioning, which usually involves some type of storage device such as batteries.
Passive solar is a technology that anyone can take advantage of by simply opening the drapes of southern facing windows (in the Northern Hemisphere; opposite for the Southern Hemisphere) to allow the sun to heat the room or building. That’s passive solar in its simplest form. Passive refers to the fact that no mechanical equipment is actively involved in converting the solar energy for its required purpose.
It’s becoming more widely integrated into the design and architecture of buildings, in which the solar energy is stored in a thermal mass for later use. A thermal mass can be made from a variety of materials, and is usually built into the walls and floors of the building.
Solar cooking is another example of passive solar, as are solar chimneys, which are used to enhance a building’s natural ventilation.
We are gradually getting better at harnessing solar energy for our everyday needs, and it’s a foregone conclusion that we’ll see solar infiltrating more and more of our daily needs and activities. Solar panels will continue to become more efficient and cheaper, and the home without solar panels, be it thin film or whatever new technology is developed in the future, will be more of an exception than the rule. The day of the solar car cannot be too far off.
Watch this space!