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The Beginners Guide to the Basics of Solar Energy

Jessica PirroDecember 18, 20197020

The amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in a mere hour and a half is going to be enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a whole year. Solar energy has the potential to power our daily lives thanks to the constant improvements that are being made in the solar power industry.

The Beginners Guide to Solar-Powered Systems

Solar-powered systems come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. Residential solar-powered systems are most commonly found on rooftops across the United States, and businesses are also choosing to install solar panels to offset their energy costs. Utilities are also a major player in the solar energy industry. The utility sector is building large solar power plants to provide cleaner energy to all customers that are connected to the grid.

There are two main types of solar energy technologies, photovoltaic cells and concentrating solar power (CSP). Most people are most likely going to be familiar with the photovoltaic cells, which are used in solar panels. When the sun shines on the solar panels, the photons from the sunlight are then absorbed by the photovoltaic cells that are embedded in the solar panels, which creates an electric field across the layers and then causes the solar electricity to flow.

The second technology is going to be concentrating on solar power. It is used primarily in very large solar power plants and is not suitable for residential use. This solar power technology uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that will collect solar energy and then convert it to heat, which will then be used to produce solar electricity.  

The Basics of Photovoltaic Cells

Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electrical energy. A single PV device is what is known as a photovoltaic cell. An individual photovoltaic cell is normally small, and typically produces around 1 or 2 watts of solar power. To boost the solar power output of photovoltaic cells, they are connected in chains to form larger units known as solar panels. Solar panels can be used individually, or several solar panels can be connected to form arrays. One or more arrays are then connected to the electrical grid as part of a solar-powered system. Because of this modular structure, solar-powered systems can be built to meet almost any electric power need, small or large.

The largest of them photovoltaic solar-powered systems in the United States are going to be located in California and produce power for utilities to distribute to their customers. The Solar Stay PV power station produces 579 megawatts of solar electricity, while the Topaz Solar Farm and Desert Sunlight Farm each produce 550 megawatts of solar power.

The Photovoltaic Cells

Photovoltaic cells are commonly referred to as solar cells. Individually the photovoltaic cells are electricity-producing devices that are made of different semiconductor materials. Photovoltaic cells come in many shapes and sizes, from smaller than a postage stamp to several inches across. Photovoltaic cells are often less than the thickness of four human hairs. To withstand the outdoors for many years, photovoltaic cells are sandwiched between protective materials in a combination of glass and/or plastics to make the solar panels.

Photovoltaic Solar-Powered Systems

PV solar panels and arrays are just one part of a PV solar-powered system. The solar-powered systems will also include mounting structures that are going to point the solar panels towards the sun, along with the components that are going to take the direct-current (DC) solar electricity produced by solar panels and convert it to the alternating-current (AC) solar electricity used to power all of the appliances in your home.

Concentrating Solar Power Basics

Concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a single point where it is collected and converted into heat. This thermal energy can then be used to produce solar electricity.

Concentrating solar-powered systems are generally going to be used for utility-scale projects. The mirrors in CSP plants focus sunlight onto a receiver that heats a high-temperature fluid, which is used to spin a turbine or power an engine that drives a generator. The final product is going to be solar electricity. An example, a single dish/engine system can produce 3 to 25 kilowatts of power and is well suited for distributed applications.

There are several varieties of CSP solar-powered systems:

- Linear Concentrator Systems.

- Dish/Engine Systems.

- Power Tower Systems.

- Thermal Storage Systems.

Solar Radiation

A bonus of solar energy technology we are going to talk about is called solar radiation. Solar radiation is often called the solar resource and is a general term for the electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by the sun. Solar radiation can be captured and turned into useful forms of energy, like heat and electricity, using a variety of technologies. But, the technical feasibility and economical operation of the technologies at a specific location is going to depend on the available solar resource.

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