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The sun is our major source of energy on Earth, and solar energy has hundreds of applications that not many people know about. Essentially, the sun creates light and heat, both of which we can harness to produce electricity or use directly to light our homes or heat water. In this post, we’ll talk about solar energy in detail, including photovoltaics and concentrated solar power, and share several applications of both.
So if you’re asking yourself, “how do we use solar energy?”, read on to find out!
What is Solar Energy?
In a nutshell, solar energy is energy that comes from the sun in the form of light and heat. This energy fuels our planet with particles called photons that can be harnessed and converted into other forms of energy using concentrated solar power collectors or photovoltaics. Solar power is a clean and sustainable energy resource that can potentially solve the global energy crisis as scientists and manufacturers from different industries tap into its potential.
Understanding Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Photovoltaic (PV)
Solar power is rapidly expanding with a myriad of solar energy technologies entering the market. The most common technologies these days are Photovoltaic (PV) and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) using which homeowners and businesses can generate heat and electricity on their respective properties. Let’s check out these two technologies in detail and how compare with each other:
What is Photovoltaic Technology?
Photovoltaics is a process in which photons (light particles) are converted into electrically charged particles (electrons). In simple words, the process converts sunlight into electricity. With a PV system, solar panels capture sunlight and turn it into energy which you can use right away, store it in batteries, or transfer it to the grid to reduce your energy bill.
What is Concentrated Solar Power?
If you’ve ever used a magnifying glass to heat a lego as a kid or even make an egg on a hot day, you should have an idea of how concentrated solar power works. Essential, this technology produces produce electricity using mirrors that concentrate the thermal energy from sunlight. The thermal energy then powers an engine or turbine that produces electricity via a generator. CSP is generally used on a larger scale so you can’t commonly find it in homes but rather in large power generation facilities. The most common types of CSPs include:
- Solar power towers
- Parabolic dishes
- Linear Fresnel systems
- Parabolic troughs
Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) Vs. Photovoltaic (PV)
While both technologies can be used to generate electricity, they’re different from each other. So, let’s check out the differences in detail:
CSPs use concentrated solar radiation to heat a liquid that powers an engine or turbine to produce electricity. Unlike photovoltaic systems, this method produces alternating current so you don’t require an inverter to match it with your grid. PV solar panels produce DC electricity via the photovoltaic effect which can be converted to conventional AC electricity for distribution.
2. Energy Storage and Efficiency
CSP systems employ Thermal Energy Storage technologies, meaning they can store thermal energy, even on cloudy days or overnight to produce electricity round the clock. This makes them far more efficient than PV systems that only generate electricity during the day and are generally inefficient. To store energy, you’ll need batteries which add to the cost of the power network,
Concentrated solar power systems are much larger than PV systems. Therefore, they require more land with direct sunlight. As a result, installing this system is more challenging and generally requires an isolated place where you’ll have to set up a utility-scale plant to feed the grid for thousands or millions of people. In contrast, PV solar systems are suitable for residential applications since they can be installed anywhere and require relatively less space. Secondly, PV systems can produce electricity in different weather conditions. However, CSP systems require a large amount of thermal energy which cannot be obtained in colder regions or during wet weather conditions.
Solar panels are much cheaper than CSP systems in terms of initial installation costs and maintenance. CSP is a relatively newer technology with fewer specialized technicians and installation companies, which drives up the cost even further. In contrast, you can install a small-scale PV solar system yourself as the technology has become widespread and less complicated.
7 Uses of Solar Energy
With so many technologies and solar-powered appliances in the modern market, you’re probably wondering “how do we use solar energy?” Whether it’s to power your refrigerator or office lighting, the following are 7 major applications of solar energy:
1. Solar Lighting
Solar energy is most commonly used for residential or commercial lighting purposes. People use the technology to power street lights, security lights, and indoor lights. What makes solar power effective for this purpose is the fact that modern lights consume little energy hence, the initial cost and maintenance are relatively cheaper. Besides, you can find hundreds of solar-powered lights online or at your local hardware store.
2. Solar Water Heating Systems
Solar geysers are small-scale CSPs that are commonly used in homes for heating water. These geysers are usually placed on rooftops to absorb solar radiation and transfer the thermal energy to a water tank. According to the US Department of Energy, these heaters pay for themselves in less than a decade in terms of cost savings. Many homeowners also use solar energy to heat swimming pools using a collector that heats the water via a pump. However, this costs thousands of dollars initially but it is one of the most cost-effective ways to heat swimming pools in different climates.
It is also quite widespread nowadays to use the energy of the sun to heat pools. Solar pool covers simply trap the suns heat and increase water temperature significantly. This is an eco-friendly, cheap and very practical way to warm up pools.
3. Powering Consumer Electronics
Another common application of solar energy is to power consumer electronics used at home and in business facilities. There are hundreds of solar gadgets and appliances in the market today, including:
- Solar power banks
- Solar chargers
- Solar air conditioning and solar attic fans
- Solar dryers
- Solar flashlights
- Solar speakers and wearables
- Solar grill
- Solar laptop and computer accessories
- Solar backpack
- Solar generators
- Solar rechargeable fans
- Solar cameras and sensors
As our world rapidly shifts from fossil fuels and conventional energy sources, there will be many new solar-powered products entering the market in the future.
4. Solar Transportation
Solar-powered vehicles might just be a thing in the future. This innovative transportation solution can effectively power railroads, subways, planes, cars, and even our roads. Even though the technology is not widely available, countries like China are using it to power buses and trains to reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs. Many outdoor facilities are also switching to solar-powered golf carts to transport people and heavy equipment.
5. Solar Pumps
Solar pumping is one of the most common commercial applications of solar energy, especially in the agriculture sector. Many homeowners also power submersible pumps using thin-film solar panels for residential water pumping to reduce their energy bills. Solar pumps are highly effective, especially in the hot summer months in which solar radiation is at its peak. And during colder weather, water requirements are relatively less which makes solar pumping quite an efficient solution all year round.
6. Solar Distillation
Solar distillation has become the go-to solution for many Middle Eastern countries and desert regions with arid climates or coastal areas. Most of these areas face severe water shortages but have more sunlight hours than tropical or northern regions. Several industries and plants use the abundant sunlight to convert seawater into distilled water and add minerals into it so it can be used for commercial and residential purposes. The process simply involves water passing through a blackened surface which is heated using solar radiation. As the water passes and absorbs the heat, it evaporates and condenses on the roof, ready for collection.
7. Solar Heating and Ventilation
Many residential and commercial buildings collect solar radiation through windows for heating purposes. Some install solar collectors that can be used to heat air or water and transfer it via ducts, fans, radiators, and air outlets throughout the building. Alternatively, the collector can also serve as a geyser to provide hot water to the building when space heating isn’t required. This makes it a multi-purpose backup system to conventional heating technologies. Lastly, many homeowners who live in single-unit households install solar fans that cool that can keep your home cool while reducing your bill. These fans don’t require you to install solar panels which can help you save more costs. A relatively simple way to heat water with solar energy is to build a solar water heater at home that can supply your home or weekend house with hot water for free. For pools a very basic solution is applying a solar pool cover that helps warming up the pool water without using any electricity.
FYI, we put together the figures and made a rough estimation on how much you can actually save with solar, in case you are interested.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following are some frequently asked questions about solar energy technologies:
1. What can electricity from solar power be used for?
The most important use of electricity generated from solar power is lighting, Electricity from solar power is used for several other applications, such as charging cell phones, and powering low power-rated appliances. Most common appliances include solar furnaces, solar dryers, solar cookers, solar-powered refrigerators, and street lights, etc.
2. Can I use a solar panel without a battery?
Yes, you can use solar energy directly without any batteries because they’re simply used for additional storage and play no part in the production of electricity from solar panels. However, by not hooking up a battery, you won’t have energy after sunlight is obscured at night.
3. Why is it important to use solar energy?
Using solar energy on a small or large scale can significantly cut the demand for conventional energy production from utility companies that generally use non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. Secondly, solar energy is better for the environment as it leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than conventional energy sources.
4. What is better than solar energy?
In terms of efficiency, wind energy is better than solar energy as they produce significantly more energy compared to solar panels, and release less carbon dioxide into the environment. In terms of storage and reliability, bioenergy and hydroelectric power are better than solar energy as they promise more stability and potential round-the-clock energy generation.
5. How can we use solar energy at home?
Solar energy can be used at home for several heating and powering applications. You can use it to charge your cell phones, batteries, and even power large appliances, depending on your power capacity. Many homeowners use it for heating and pumping water as well.
6. What are the major disadvantages of solar energy?
The biggest disadvantage of solar energy is its initial cost. This is due to several factors, including system inefficiency, highly expensive storage, and huge installation area. Another major disadvantage of solar energy is that energy isn’t produced round the clock and dependent on sunlight hours.
7. Do solar panels work at night?
Solar panels do not produce any energy at night. In fact, a drop in the sunlight’s intensity can also reduce energy production. Raw sunlight contains photons that solar panels use to produce energy, and during the night there are little or none available for the process.
Solar energy is gradually becoming a more familiar part of our lives, especially due to innovative technologies that continue to bring about new applications every day. As you might have seen, there are several applications of solar energy for both homeowners and businesses. However, we recommend estimating the finances you’ll need to improve your lives with this renewable energy solution. For example, you can opt for using solar power on a small scale for lighting and powering small appliances. On a larger scale, you can potentially go off the grid and become self-reliant. No matter the scale you choose, you’ll not only lower your bill but also reduce your carbon footprint.