Look out of your window during the day, and you’ll see one of the most abundant sources of energy available. That energy source is sunlight and the solar energy it generates.
What is solar energy?
Solar energy involves the conversion of light from the sun into solar energy. Wherever the sun is, there is solar energy. It’s claimed that if converting all of the energy from the sun, this would provide the Earth with all of its electrical needs. There would be no need to use other forms of energy. There are two types of solar energy. They are:
Passive Solar Energy: This does not need any machinery as solar energy is used directly.
Active Solar Energy: Solar energy is collected using a device which is then used by something like providing electricity to a home.
Being renewable, it provides an efficient and clean source of energy. It offers an assortment of different uses.
Solar energy uses
It’s possible to harness solar power and put it to use in a variety of different ways. These include things like cooking, heating, drying clothes and removing salt from seawater. Probably the best-known uses are:
1. Solar Panels
Walk around any residential area, and you’ll see at least one home with solar panels on its roof. The solar panels use the sun’s energy to generate electricity. Although prices are coming down, the cost of installing solar panels is expensive. If they create any surplus electricity, this can be sold back to the national grid.
2. Solar Water Heating
Unlike solar panels, solar water heating uses a different process. The sun’s energy heats up the water in the panels to provide a supply of hot water. Like solar panels, the panels generating the hot water are also located on the roof. Although not as common, it is possible to use solar water heating systems to heat swimming pools. Although expensive, the cost of solar water heating systems is cheaper than solar panels.
When it comes to solar energy, this is not a new idea. It has been around for centuries. For example, in 1767, the Swiss scientist, Horace-Benedict de Saussure developed the first solar oven. It was a man named Charles Fritts who in 1883 produced the first solar cell panel.
Using solar panels to generate electricity is something that’s been around for a while. The turning point for the use of solar panels in the UK came in 2006. It was the reduction in costs that saw an increase in the installation of solar panels. There was also the introduction of the feed-in tariff system (FIT) in 2010. The scheme meant that people could receive payment over a number of years for installing solar panels. The lower costs and access to programmes like FIT led to more people installing solar panels on the roof of their homes.
When talking about solar energy, often the assumption is that you’re referring to solar panels. This is because it’s the most common use of solar energy. Solar panel systems are also known as photovoltaics (PV) and can last for between 20 and 25 years. You find them on the roof of homes. They work by taking the energy of the sun using photovoltaic cells and turning it into electricity. Solar panels can generate electricity even on a cloudy day. They do, however, require that nothing gets in the way of the panels, like overhanging trees for example. The electricity generated by the panels can be used to run household devices and light homes. If there is a surplus, it’s possible to pass it back into the national grid. Any excess also generates an income for the owner.
Solar energy is a renewable source of energy that has little or no impact on the environment. It doesn’t generate any greenhouse gases. Because of this, it has a low Carbon footprint. On the downside, there may be some environmental impact with the chemicals used in solar panels. When they reach their end of life, care will be needed to make sure that they are recycled appropriately.
The advantages and disadvantages of solar energy
The use of solar energy has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are:
- Renewable energy source – It is not possible to run out of solar energy from the sun.
- Lower electricity bills – Solar panels generate the electricity needed to power your home.
- Wide range of uses – Solar energy can be used for different purposes such as generating electricity and heating water.
- Low maintenance costs – the systems used to create solar energy don’t require a lot of maintenance.
- Technology advancements – the technology used in solar energy systems is constantly improving thereby increasing their effectiveness and reducing costs.
The main disadvantages of solar energy include:
- Installation costs – Although prices are coming down, installation costs are quite high.
- Needs sunlight – Since solar panels need sunlight to produce electricity, they can only be used during the day.
- Uses a lot of space – the more electricity you want to generate the more solar panels you need thereby meaning you need more roof space.
- Pollutants – there is some pollution associated with the materials used in solar panels.
The list is not exhaustive. There may be other advantages and disadvantages you need to consider, depending on your circumstances.
If you’re thinking of installing solar panels or a solar water heating system, it’s important that you do your research. A search of the Internet for terms like ‘solar energy’ and ‘solar panels’ will offer a range of resources that can help. Two useful information sites to consider are ‘Which’ and the ‘Energy Savings Trust’.