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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?

solar-energy-power-reasons

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.

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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 Logitech Solar Keyboards K750 and K760 Review and Giveaway Logitech Solar Keyboards K750 and K760 Review and Giveaway Wireless keyboards and mice have been historically undervalued because of unreliability in their wireless communications and constant need for replacement batteries. But I took one step further and got solar keyboards to see if they... Read More and solar-powered phone chargers Poweradd Apollo Pro 23,000mAh Solar Battery and Charger Review and Giveaway Poweradd Apollo Pro 23,000mAh Solar Battery and Charger Review and Giveaway We tested the Poweradd Apollo Pro 23,000mAh external battery pack with automatic solar charging. Read More .

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

solar-energy-power-theory

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).

solar-energy-power-silicon-diagram

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

solar-energy-power-benefits

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 5 Eco Labels For Electronics You Should Know 5 Eco Labels For Electronics You Should Know Eco labels can help you identify greener and more energy efficient devices. They enable you -- the consumer -- to take sustainability concerns into account when buying new electronics. But what do the various labels... Read More 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 Energy Saving Tips For Buying & Using Electronics Energy Saving Tips For Buying & Using Electronics Electronics make up a significant portion of your household energy costs. Computers, printers, and WiFi routers alone account for around 25% of your electricity bill. While electronics are becoming more efficient, their increased use offsets... Read More .

Final Thoughts

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!

Image Credits: Oil Rigs Via Shutterstock, Solar Panel Illustration Via Shutterstock, Silicon Types Via Redarc, Solar Energy Benefits Via Shutterstock

  1. Martina
    July 7, 2016 at 8:31 am

    As fuel prices have risen, many people have grown interested in alternative sources of energy, such as solar energy for home use. LA Solar Group is one of the fastest growing solar companies in the country which commits to the best prices possible.So let’s go green with solar panel!!!l

  2. Bradley
    July 6, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    As fuel prices have risen, many people have grown interested in alternative sources of energy, such as solar energy for home use. LA Solar Group is one of the fastest growing solar companies in the country which commits to the best prices possible.So let's go green with solar panel!!!l

  3. Sunmetrix
    September 5, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for the article. I think one of the biggest barriers of solar energy is lack of consumer awareness. All of the strange units, terms and the complicated financial calculations make it really difficult for the average consumer to understand the value of solar power for their homes. We built a free tool to help them test drive solar power ( http://sunmetrix.com/track-landing ). Hopefully it will help many people to run the numbers easily for their own homes and make better decisions.

  4. Stcad
    July 30, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Two project :
    One in Sout africa one in Chili : http://www.cmigroupe.com/en/p/cmi-solar

  5. Muhammad A
    July 26, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    If one has all the info about solar energy;its advantages,draw backs & its requirements,only then one should one install a solar power system.My neighbors have installed 20 solar panels with a total power of 3000 Watts and it seems to be working pretty fine. The advantages do outweigh the draw backs as long as you know what you're doing.

  6. dvous
    July 26, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    The article state that devices and appliances need alternating current.

    In fact most appliances and devices convert AC back into DC with an internal power supply that converts the incoming AC to the required DC at the right voltage/amperage to power the circuitry.

    AC was first used in large scale grids because at that time, only AC could be changed from one voltage to another (DC transformers didn't exist back then). We still have AC grids in general because AC transformers and circuit breakers are dramatically cheaper than DC items. We also have a vast legacy of devices that were designed to be connected to an AC supply.

    • dragonmouth
      July 26, 2014 at 5:17 pm

      The main reason an AC power grid won out over a DC power grid is that AC can be delivered over much greater distances with only minor voltage losses. Actually,Thomas Edison, who was a big proponent of DC, won the first contract ever for any type of a power grid and that was for a DC system. Unfortunately it was discovered that the voltage drop was so significant that in order to provide sufficient power to all customers, relay stations had to be set up every couple of blocks to boost the voltage back up. It would have been expensive and inefficent.

  7. Larry Witten
    July 25, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Sounds good but it won't work, sorry.
    See this article for the details: http://www.americanthinker.com/2014/07/five_fatal_flaws_of_solar_energy.html

  8. John
    July 25, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    "Fossil fuels are running out."
    Yes, but not really. The only reason we would EVER run out of fossil fuels is if the governments of the world are stupid enough to institute price controls on oil. As Fossil Fuels supplies decrease and their uses stay the same or increase, standard economics in a market economy dictates that the prices will rise, which dictate that demand will decrease (less people will use Air conditioning, turn off lights more, turn off computers, buy gas stoves, ...). Ad infinitum as price rises and supply decreases asymptotically.

    So it isn't that Fossil Fuels are running out so we need to be scared and look at alternatives, it is that Fossil Fuels are going to become increasingly expensive, which means energy will become increasingly expensive until such a price that alternatives become viable. If energy doubles in price due to less supply (likely to happen), then at that point Solar and Wind and Geothermal will be very lucrative.

    Just don't institute price controls on oil and all will be fine with just higher energy costs.

    • Dmitry T
      July 26, 2014 at 10:08 am

      Another 'free market uber alles' approach.
      Huge problem is that fossil fuel==liquid fuel. And among main consumers of said liquid fuel is food production and transportation. You can theoretically replace trucks and cars with trolleybuses and electric carts(and trains and subways), but there's no realistic options for replacing/electrifying large pool of combine-harvesters and tractors.
      Basically that you propose will rapidly downgrade western world to North Korea's 'norm' of living (major problem with their food productivity is exactly permanent shortage of fuels and fertilizers) - but 1%ers will still be able to ride muscle cars and private jets of course.

    • dragonmouth
      July 26, 2014 at 11:07 am

      "fossil fuel==liquid fuel"
      Coal, natural gas and wood are also "fossil fuels." They all may not be used to power vehicles but they all can be used to generate electricity.

      "there’s no realistic options for replacing/electrifying large pool of combine-harvesters and tractors."
      They can use battery power. Granted we need much better battery storage capacity for that but it can be done even now.

      "major problem with their food productivity is exactly permanent shortage of fuels and fertilizers"
      Their biggest problem is rigid, centralized planning by a rigid, political oligarchy.

    • Dmitry T
      July 27, 2014 at 9:51 am

      Gas and coal can be relatively easily transformed to liquid fuel - germans did it first at large scale during WWII. Wood is actually in too short supply to be used as fuel.
      And all generated electricity won't help you much if you can replace your combustion-powered agricultural machines only on 1:10 or 1:20 ratio (batteries like in modern hybrids and 'Tesla' actually require lot of materials that are in relatively short supply, old-fashioned batteries will allow only something on par with 1920s Fordson tractor ).

      As for DPRK and centralized planning - in position they're in centralized planning gives 'em more than free market would give. But shortage of fuel IS acute reality no matter the political and economical reasons. If not for harsh dicatorship that US don't minded RoK would be the same.

  9. Wayne earl
    July 25, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    The biggest obsticle to solar power is the very same one all evangelists seem to miss - SOLAR PANELS ARE MANUfACTuRED FROM PRODUCTS DERRIVED FROM FOSSEL FUELS, the use of which has ZERO known alternatives currently. Oh, and why not take a look at the portable toxic waste dumb known as a battery. If you went end to end, taking into account all costs in manufactuering, global political unrest and wars, environmental toxisity, every actual cost - you find the single most toxic automobile to the environment is actually a Toyota Prius.

    Organic chemistry, my friends. Fueled by dinosaurs. But you keep wesving hemp ropes.

    One other thing to consider of more importance to the human race aside from the Internet and your green religion - the earth population is currently at a level 300% beyond its ability to produce nitrogren enough to support crop growth, assuming the never going to happen fantasy that all food be grown, planned for, and distrubted globally in perfect effeciency (meaning, like the unicorns do it, free of both whole foods and mcdonalds). You are alive today because those factory farming companies you hate like you're told to have developed ways to synthesize nitrogen - again, via organic chemistry, using fossel fuels that cannot be synthesized. If this ever stops, ans 2/3 of the world suddenly discovers that it is starving - you will suddenly know horror on a scale previously unimaginable.

    Solar power exists as an opportunity for true believers to be fleeced for money, a solution to look good, but never do good. Waste time here at your peril.

    • Dmitry T
      July 26, 2014 at 10:33 am

      Actually there's theoretical possibility of sustainable solar-powered civilization even with current population numbers. But this will require drastic downgrade in all non-lifesustaining areas of consumption (bye bye 'Apple' stocks fueled by gadget craze , one-use things and fast tech upgrade cycle, hello frugality with one pair of shoes for decade and purchase of TV/PC only once per human generation) combined with great investments not paying off for decades or centuries . Basically it'll be middle ages with internet and some healthcare, something that will require major change in mindsets and politics we are not ready for.

  10. Bob Myers
    July 25, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    You are confusing solar power, all the different type of power that come from the sun. IR, Visible and UV are the types of energy that we earthling can harvest fairly easily.

    What you described is photo-voltaics , light to electricity.

    IR is heat energy which is harvested directly from heat and photovoltaics, and indirectly from rain and wind. Solar water heating has been used since the 1700s. Solar cooking is a fairly recent procedure. Solar desalinization has been around since WW2. Solar water extraction has been use almost as long. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has cured two part adhesive in a car on a hot day. Drying your laundry in the sun and wind is how old> Drying grain and fireworks is about as ould.

    Wind and water powered, indirect solar energy, mills and other mechanically used energy have been around for ages. Heat evaporates to make rain and heats air to make wind.

    Solar energy has been around for a long time.

  11. Dmitry T
    July 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    IMHO solar can never rise above secondary position.
    First of all - it's "extensive". I mean - produced power is direct derivative of surface area used. And it's brings dilemma - there's lot of space in deserts but energy transportation losses will be huge - or you must take over land near population and industrial centers...which already in heavy use(both option will raise prices well over "usd per KW" ratios in small 'farms' ).
    Second - it's voracious for rare metals (or it's effectiveness takes a nosedive, though this is more acute in photovoltaic than in honest 'mirrors and steam' powerplants). Unlike 1st - in that area there's reasonable hope for improvement.
    Third - it requires levels of capital investments higher than nuclear energy(that only France and Russia really investigating 'closed circle' nuclear systems don't mean this is obscure direction - it's just confirms two old quotes - "Fear is mindkiller"(C)F.Herbert. and "Man is a slave to his fears")

    And in my country(Russia) any thoughts of any 'green' energy 'cept hydro(mostly maxed out in USSR times)/tidal(only some regions)/thermal(very regional) is futile anyway - purely from geographical (thus geometrical) and geological P.o.V.s.

    In southern/tropical countries...well, it can potentially provide for consumer sector needs but not for heavy industries.

    So imo concentration on energy-saving technologies and nuclears will bring more effect (both in bang for the buck and total footprint reduction senses) than most 'green energy' sources.
    Basically if currently advertised 'greenies' ever become main energy source it will mean we're totally and utterly screwed.

  12. Mike Merritt
    July 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    The "Darkness" (lack of sunlight) under a Solar Panel where nothing can grow is a "Pollution" too.

    • Joel L
      July 26, 2014 at 2:21 pm

      Is it impractical to build solar panels where ground space is already used up? For example, on top of buildings. There's a lot of municipal legalities to deal with, but it's not a problem without a few solutions at least.

  13. nathan
    July 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Direct solar may be the energy source of the future, but it is still a distant future. Humanity's ability to collect and store solar energy is severely limited. Even if our photovoltaic cells were 85% efficient, the amount of land we would need to cover with those cells to meet our current energy consumption would rival the amount of land we dedicate to food production. Additionally, we are going to need to find new ways to store that energy as the rare earth elements used to make high performance batteries (like the ones in hybrid/electric cars) are in short supply. Most of that supply is controlled by a single country - China. If we expect to transition to solar energy, we have a lot of scientific breakthroughs to achieve.

    • Bob Myers
      July 25, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      If an electricity user is far enough away from a power line that the the cost of installing power lines is prohibitive, photovoltaics is practical. Look at the many permanent and temporary traffic signs. The PV lighted billboards in the desert are another example.

      PV is only one of the 'alternative' energy sources

  14. Allan
    July 25, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    The reason Solar hasn't taken off on an industrial scale is that the billions and billions of dollars made from fossil fuels cannot be replicated.

    Solar is ideal for micro generation, for each individual house to be self powered, but there is no profit in that for dollar hungry companies, so they ignore it.

    • Joel L
      July 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

      Heh, it always comes down to the money these days. The tech and creativity behind solar power is lacking, but your point is probably the reason why.

  15. dragonmouth
    July 25, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    To be commercially viable on a wide scale solar panels need to be at least couple of orders of magnitude more efficient and an order of magnitude less expensive to the end user.

    "An important ethical consideration is solar power’s lack of environmental impact."
    The environmental impact of solar is easily overlooked. Even using today's most efficient panels, it takes literally square miles of them to generate enough electricity to power a city, let alone power-hungry industries. A panel farm of that size does have an environmental impact during the construction phase. Once the farm goes online, it presents a changed habitat for indigeneous flora and fauna.

    What about the indirect environmental impact of providing the raw materials for making the solar panels? Mining is not an environmentally friendly industry. Neither is making the metal necessary for the panels and their supports. What is the environmental impact of actually making the panels? How many and what quantities of toxic chemicals are used? And finally there is the impact from producing the energy necessary to produce the finished panels and build the farm. So, to say that there is no environmental impact, is either convenient self-deceit or a very shallow examination of the entire process.

    "the sun is always available"
    Sun IS always available in space. Instead of building countless solar farms on the ground and have them generate electricity only part the time, we can construct them in space where they can be generating 24/7/365. Also space-borne panels can be hundreds or thousands of square miles in size. At this point all we need is the technology to beam that energy back to Earth.

    "Once installed, maintenance fees are negligible and you could save over $20,000 over the next 20 years. "
    That sounds great until you check the cost of equiping a house to be electrically self-sufficient. The last time I checked, it would cost me $35,000-$40,000 to go off the grid. Even under the best of circumstances it would take 35-40 years to recoup my money. Yes, there are government subsidies and tax breaks for installing alternative energy. However, once a large segment of the population tries to take advantage of those tax breaks and subsidies, the government will end them because it would cost too much money. So, as I said, solar needs to increase efficency and decrease the price to have a chance of being a replacement for fossil fuel energy generation.

    • Lisa
      July 25, 2014 at 11:59 pm

      Well said! There is another impact to the environment and that is what it takes to make the batteries and dispose of them. It is not a clean process.

      Thanks for your well thought out comments!

    • Joel L
      July 26, 2014 at 2:19 pm

      Thanks, those are some good counterpoints. I didn't mean to imply that solar power had NO environmental impact, so I apologize if that's how it came off. However, isn't it safe to say that solar power has far less impact than our addiction to fossil fuels? That relative difference is what really matters.

    • dragonmouth
      July 26, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      "isn’t it safe to say that solar power has far less impact than our addiction to fossil fuels?"
      That is open to an argument. Granted there will never be a spill like Exxon Valdez but how environmentally friendly is the entire process of making the panels? Some of the chemicals used along the way are pretty toxic.

      "That relative difference is what really matters."
      The devil is in the details. Suffice it to say that taken in its entirety, solar is nowhere near as eco-friendly as some would have us believe. But then no technology is eco-friendly when you take a close look at it. There always is a fly in the ointment. The question we need to ask ourselves is how much environmental impact are we willing to tolerate? "As little as possible" is not an acceptable answer because it is vague and open-ended.

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