Solar Energy And Its Use

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We've used the Sun for drying clothes and food for thousands of years, but only recently have we been able to use it for generating power. The Sun is 150 million kilometres away, and amazingly powerful. Just the tiny fraction of the Sun's energy that hits the Earth (around a hundredth of a millionth of a percent) is enough to meet all our power needs many times over.

In fact, every minute, enough energy arrives at the Earth to meet our demands for a whole year - if only we could harness it correctly.
Solar energy technologies use the sun's energy and light to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity, and even cooling, for homes, businesses, and industry.
There are a variety of technologies that have been developed to take advantage of solar energy. These include:

Photovoltaic (solar cell) Systems

Solar cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Solar cells are often used to power calculators and watches. They are made of semiconducting materials similar to those used in computer chips. When sunlight is absorbed by these materials, the solar energy knocks electrons loose from their atoms, allowing the electrons to flow through the material to produce electricity. This process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage) is called the photovoltaic (PV) effect.

Solar cells are typically combined into modules that hold about 40 cells; a number of these modules are mounted in PV arrays that can measure up to several meters on a side. These flat-plate PV arrays can be mounted at a fixed angle facing south, or they can be mounted on a tracking device that follows the sun, allowing them to capture the most sunlight over the course of a day. Several connected PV arrays can provide enough power for a household; for large electric utility or industrial applications, hundreds of arrays can be interconnected to form a single, large PV system.

Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. Thin film technology has made it possible for solar cells to now double as rooftop shingles, roof tiles, building facades, or the glazing for skylights or atria. The solar cell version of items such as shingles offer the same protection and durability as ordinary asphalt shingles.

Some solar cells are designed to operate with concentrated sunlight. These cells are built into concentrating collectors that use a lens to focus the sunlight onto the cells. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages compared with flat-plate PV arrays. The main idea is to use very little of the expensive semiconducting PV material while collecting as much sunlight as possible. But because the lenses must be pointed at the sun, the use of concentrating collectors is limited to the sunniest parts of the country. Some concentrating collectors are designed to be mounted on simple tracking devices, but most require sophisticated tracking devices, which further limit their use to electric utilities, industries, and large buildings.

The performance of a solar cell is measured in terms of its efficiency at turning sunlight into electricity. Only sunlight of certain energies will work efficiently to create electricity, and much of it is reflected or absorbed by the material that make up the cell. Because of this, a typical commercial solar cell has an efficiency of 15%-about one-sixth of the sunlight striking the cell generates electricity. Low efficiencies mean that larger arrays are needed, and that means higher cost. Improving solar cell efficiencies while holding down the cost per cell is an important goal of the PV industry, NREL researchers, and other U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories, and they have made significant progress. The first solar cells, built in the 1950s, had efficiencies of less than 4%.


Solar Electricity

Many power plants today use fossil fuels as a heat source to boil water. The steam from the boiling water rotates a large turbine, which activates a generator that produces electricity. However, a new generation of power plants, with concentrating solar power systems, uses the sun as a heat source. There are three main types of concentrating solar power systems: parabolic-trough, dish/engine, and power tower.

Parabolic-trough systems concentrate the sun's energy through long rectangular, curved (U-shaped) mirrors. The mirrors are tilted toward the sun, focusing sunlight on a pipe that runs down the centre of the trough. This heats the oil flowing through the pipe. The hot oil then is used to boil water in a conventional steam generator to produce electricity.

A dish/engine system uses a mirrored dish (similar to a very large satellite dish). The dish-shaped surface collects and concentrates the sun's heat onto a receiver, which absorbs the heat and transfers it to fluid within the engine. The heat causes the fluid to expand against a piston or turbine to produce mechanical power. The mechanical power is then used to run a generator or alternator to produce electricity.

A power tower system uses a large field of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto the top of a tower, where a receiver sits. This heats molten salt flowing through the receiver. Then, the salt's heat is used to generate electricity through a conventional steam generator. Molten salt retains heat efficiently, so it can be stored for days before being converted into electricity. That means electricity can be produced on cloudy days or even several hours after sunset.

Solar Hot Water

The shallow water of a lake is usually warmer than the deep water. That's because the sunlight can heat the lake bottom in the shallow areas, which in turn, heats the water. It's nature's way of solar water heating. The sun can be used in basically the same way to heat water used in buildings and swimming pools.

Most solar water heating systems for buildings have two main parts: a solar collector and a storage tank. The most common collector is called a flat-plate collector. Mounted on the roof, it consists of a thin, flat, rectangular box with a transparent cover that faces the sun. Small tubes run through the box and carry the fluid either water or other fluid, such as an antifreeze solution to be heated. The tubes are attached to an absorber plate, which is painted black to absorb the heat. As heat builds up in the collector, it heats the fluid passing through the tubes.

The storage tank then holds the hot liquid. It can be just a modified water heater, but it is usually larger and very well-insulated. Systems that use fluids other than water usually heat the water by passing it through a coil of tubing in the tank, which is full of hot fluid.

Solar water heating systems can be either active or passive, but the most common are active systems. Active systems rely on pumps to move the liquid between the collector and the storage tank, while passive systems rely on gravity and the tendency for water to naturally circulate as it is heated.

Swimming pool systems are simpler. The pool's filter pump is used to pump the water through a solar collector, which is usually made of black plastic or rubber. And of course, the pool stores the hot water.

Passive Solar Heating and Daylighting

Step outside on a hot and sunny summer day, and you'll feel the power of solar heat and light. Today, many buildings are designed to take advantage of this natural resource through the use of passive solar heating and daylighting.
The south side of a building always receives the most sunlight. Therefore, buildings designed for passive solar heating usually have large, south-facing windows. Materials that absorb and store the sun's heat can be built into the sunlit floors and walls. The floors and walls will then heat up during the day and slowly release heat at night, when the heat is needed most. This passive solar design feature is called direct gain.

Other passive solar heating design features include sunspaces and trombe walls. A sunspace (which is much like a greenhouse) is built on the south side of a building. As sunlight passes through glass or other glazing, it warms the sunspace. Proper ventilation allows the heat to circulate into the building. On the other hand, a trombe wall is a very thick, south-facing wall, which is painted black and made of a material that absorbs a lot of heat. A pane of glass or plastic glazing, installed a few inches in front of the wall, helps hold in the heat. The wall heats up slowly during the day. Then as it cools gradually during the night, it gives off its heat inside the building.

Many of the passive solar heating design features also provide daylighting. Daylighting is simply the use of natural sunlight to brighten up a building's interior. To lighten up north-facing rooms and upper levels, a clerestory - a row of windows near the peak of the roof - is often used along with an open floor plan inside that allows the light to bounce throughout the building.

Of course, too much solar heating and daylighting can be a problem during the hot summer months. Fortunately, there are many design features that help keep passive solar buildings cool in the summer. For instance, overhangs can be designed to shade windows when the sun is high in the summer. Sunspaces can be closed off from the rest of the building. And a building can be designed to use fresh-air ventilation in the summer.

Solar Process Space Heating and Cooling

Commercial and industrial buildings may use the same solar technologies - photovoltaic, passive heating, daylighting, and water heating - that are used for residential buildings. These non-residential buildings can also use solar energy technologies that would be impractical for a home. These technologies include ventilation air preheating, solar process heating and solar cooling.

Many large buildings need ventilated air to maintain indoor air quality. In cold climates, heating this air can use large amounts of energy. A solar ventilation system can preheat the air, saving both energy and money. This type of system typically uses a transpired collector, which consists of a thin, black metal panel mounted on a south-facing wall to absorb the sun's heat. Air passes through the many small holes in the panel. A space behind the perforated wall allows the air streams from the holes to mix together. The heated air is then sucked out from the top of the space into the ventilation system.

Solar process heating systems are designed to provide large quantities of hot water or space heating for non-residential buildings. A typical system includes solar collectors that work along with a pump, a heat exchanger, and/or one or more large storage tanks. The two main types of solar collectors used - an evacuated-tube collector and a parabolic-trough collector - can operate at high temperatures with high efficiency. An evacuated-tube collector is a shallow box full of many glass, double-walled tubes and reflectors to heat the fluid inside the tubes. A vacuum between the two walls insulates the inner tube, holding in the heat. Parabolic troughs are long, rectangular, curved (U-shaped) mirrors tilted to focus sunlight on a tube, which runs down the centre of the trough. This heats the fluid within the tube.

The heat from a solar collector can also be used to cool a building. It may seem impossible to use heat to cool a building, but it makes more sense if you just think of the solar heat as an energy source. Your familiar home air conditioner uses an energy source, electricity, to create cool air. Solar absorption coolers use a similar approach, combined with some very complex chemistry tricks, to create cool air from solar energy. Solar energy can also be used with evaporative coolers (also called "swamp coolers") to extend their usefulness to more humid climates, using another chemistry trick called desiccant cooling
Experimental Solar Power

A solar updraft tower, also known as a solar chimney or solar tower, consists of a large greenhouse that funnels into a central tower. As sunlight shines on the greenhouse, the air inside is heated, and expands. The expanding air flows toward the central tower, where a turbine converts the air flow into electricity. A 50 kW prototype was constructed in Ciudad Real Spain and operated for eight years before decommissioning in 1989.]

Thermoelectric or "thermovoltaic" devices convert a temperature difference between dissimilar materials into an electric current. First proposed as a method to store solar energy by solar pioneer Mouchout in the 1800s, thermoelectrics reemerged in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Under the direction of Soviet scientist Abram Ioffe a concentrating system was used to thermoelectrically generate power for a 1 hp engine ]Thermogenerators were later used in the US space program as an energy conversion technology for powering deep space missions such as Cassini, Galileo and Viking. Research in this area is focused on raising the efficiency of these devices from 78% to 1520%.

Finally, Space-based solar power is a theoretical design for the collection of solar power in space, for use on Earth. SBSP differs from the usual method of solar power collection in that the solar panels used to collect the energy would reside on a satellite in orbit, often referred to as a solar power satellite (SPS), rather than on Earth's surface. In space, collection of the Sun's energy is unaffected by the day/night cycle, weather, seasons, or the filtering effect of Earth's atmospheric gases. Average solar energy per unit area outside Earth's atmosphere is on the order of ten times that available on Earth's surface. However, there is no shortage of energy reaching the surface. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet each year is about twice the amount of energy that will be obtained forever from coal, oil, natural gas, and mined Uranium, combined, even using breeder reactors.


Solar power plants can face high installation costs, although this has been decreasing due to the curve. Developing countries have started to build solar power plants, replacing other sources of energy generation.
Since solar radiation is intermittent, solar power generation is usually combined either with storage or other energy sources to provide continuous power, although for small distributed producer/consumers, net metering makes this transparent to the consumer. On a slightly larger scale, in Germany, a combined power plant has been demonstrated, using a mix of wind, biomass, hydro-, and solar power generation, resulting in 100% renewable energy.
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