What’s the big deal with solar energy? If it’s really as important and necessary as so many claim it to be, why hasn’t it taken over the energy industry yet? How does it even work? If you’ve ever asked yourself these questions before, then keep reading. You may just find the answers you’ve been looking for.
“Solar power” has been a buzzword for a long time but there’s still a bit of confusion over what it is and how it works. Here’s a crash course on what solar power is, why we need it, and the obstacles associated with adopting this technology.
Why Solar Power, Anyway?
Before we zoom in on the solar panels, let’s address why continued research and development on solar energy is so crucial for the future.
Fossil fuels are running out. It’s as simple as that. We, as a society, have long passed the point of no return when it comes to technological status quo. Nearly every aspect of our lives now depends on electricity, and most of that energy comes from limited fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
If an alternative is not developed and widely adopted before those fossil fuels run out – which could happen as early as 2055 – then life as we know it might cease to exist. Without electricity, we’d have no computers, no lights, nothing.
Solar power is one of the more hopeful alternatives available to us right now. Not to say that it’s perfect, because it isn’t, but the potential benefits are hard to deny. Companies are starting to realize and embrace the power of the sun. Don’t believe me? We’re starting to see solar-powered keyboards and solar-powered phone chargers.
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done before it will be economically viable as a fossil fuel replacement, but solar power is our best bet moving forward. You don’t want to be left out in the dust when coal, oil, and gas are emptied, do you?
The Theory of Solar Power
The main unit of technology that drives solar power is the photovoltaic cell. When a group of these cells are connected together, they form a solar panel. Multiple solar panels are then grouped into solar arrays, which are commonly seen powering solar farms and solar power stations.
Photovoltaic cells are most commonly made using silicon, which is a semiconductor material that can absorb some of the energy of a photon (a single unit of light). However, silicon cells come in two forms: N-type silicon and P-type silicon.
The bond between two silicon atoms is stable and requires a lot of energy to dislodge electrons, which is why photovoltaic cells aren’t pure silicon. Instead, some cells are made of a mixture of silicon with phosphorous (which has one more electron than silicon) and other cells are made of a mixture of silicon with boron (which has one less electron than silicon).
Think of these two like jigsaw pieces: one has extra electrons (called N-type because it’s negative) while the other is missing electrons (called P-type because it’s positive). The free electrons in N-type silicon want to fill the holes in P-type silicon, and that “rush” of electricity from one cell to the other is what creates an electrical current.
Unfortunately, the electricity generated by solar panels is direct current while devices and appliances require alternating current. In order to make use of a solar panel’s energy, you’ll need to install an inverter, although some solar energy systems come with an inverter already built in.
Some of the photons that hit silicon are reflected and offer no energy value. The more photons bounce, the less light can be absorbed and the less energy can be produced, which is why photovoltaic cells are treated with an antireflective coating.
Other factors, like silicon’s high internal resistance, dampen cell efficiency even further. In fact, a typical solar panel hovers somewhere around 15% efficiency even though the theoretical cap is approximately 85%.
Solar Power: Benefits and Drawbacks
The chief drawback of solar energy is the simple fact that the sun is not always available. In areas that have more cloudy days than sunny days, solar power falls short. That’s not even considering the areas of the world that are heavily forested, located underground, or plunged in darkness for months at a time (e.g., Alaska).
One way around this problem is to store solar energy in batteries so it can be tapped on demand. This is, of course, predicated on the efficiency of batteries and the assumption that they’ll be able to handle the potential load of mass energy storage.
Fortunately, the benefits of solar power far outweigh the drawbacks.
For one, the sun is always available. Not in the sense of day-and-night availability, but in the sense that the sun will surely outlast the earth. For as long as we call this planet our home, we will be able to harness the sun’s light. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy will never run out.
An important ethical consideration is solar power’s lack of environmental impact. Unlike fossil fuels, which generate an unspeakable amount of pollution, widespread use of photovoltaic cells would be environmentally friendly and reduce the human footprint on global warming. Plus, we wouldn’t need to destroy the earth to harvest fuel – it comes right to us through the atmosphere.
The benefits aren’t only in the future, either. By installing solar panels in your home today, you could end up saving a lot of money. In most cases, the only cost associated with solar energy is the cost of installation. Once installed, maintenance fees are negligible and you could save over $20,000 over the next 20 years. As solar technology improves, the savings will only get better, especially if you start practicing some energy saving tips.
Abstractly speaking, solar panels are rather simple to understand. They convert one form of energy (light) into another form of energy (electricity) according to the basic principles of physics. The difficulty is figuring out ways to make that conversion more efficient and doing so before our precious fossil fuels are depleted.
What do you think of solar power’s viability? Are you convinced that it’ll one day power the world? Or do you think that it will never live up to its theoretical promise? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!