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What Is Solar Energy & How Does it Work?

We walk you through the basics of solar power.

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What is Solar Energy?
Tim Robberts / Stone / Getty Images

For homeowners who are looking for clean energy solutions, solar power is utterly essential. But what is solar energy, exactly, and how does solar power work?

Solar energy is the energy emitted by the sun that reaches the earth's surface. In this article, we'll cover how it's converted into electricity that we use to power our lives, as well as discuss the biggest advantages and disadvantages of using solar energy.

The U.S. has one of the best climates for solar power in the world and is home to some of the best solar companies and manufacturers. So how should we take advantage of this natural, renewable energy we enjoy in such abundance? Let's dive in.

Solar Energy Definition

In its simplest form, solar energy is the heat and light released by the sun. Individual particles of sunlight are known as photons, and they carry high amounts of the sun's energy to Earth. In fact, during any given hour, the Earth receives enough solar energy to theoretically fuel our entire population's energy needs for one full year.

But where does all of this solar power actually come from? Well, like any other star, the sun is basically one big nuclear reactor. There are nuclear fusion reactions happening in the sun's core all the time, a process through which hydrogen atoms collide and fuse to create helium atoms.

This process produces an enormous amount of energy, as the sun fuses about 620 million metric tons of hydrogen every second.

Nuclear fusion is the process through which hydrogen atoms collide and fuse to create helium atoms.MARK GARLICK / Getty Images

That solar energy can be collected here on Earth via photovoltaic technology, which converts solar energy into electricity that can be used to supply power to a home or a business. Solar power currently represents 18% of the global energy economy, and it's rapidly gaining in popularity (and necessity), largely thanks to the falling costs of solar and a desire among governments and homeowners alike to reduce energy costs and carbon emissions.

Using Solar Power

You've likely heard the term "PV" associated with solar power, which as we've mentioned refers to photovoltaic technology used in most solar cells. Most commonly, PV cells are made with a silicon semiconductor due to its cost and abundance. Generally used for small-scale applications, such as residential solar systems or portable solar generators, PV represents the most common method of harnessing solar energy.

Another option, called solar thermal capture, is typically better suited to produce solar electricity on a larger scale, like in a power plant.

We'll focus more on the former, as it's the most common method.

Converting Solar Energy via Solar Panels

By installing solar energy systems made with solar photovoltaic cells, or PV cells, home and business owners can collect solar energy and convert it into electricity. Here's a breakdown of that process:

  1. The sun's photons reach the surface area of the solar panel, and through the photovoltaic effect, those photons excite and displace loose electrons within a solar cell.
  2. Solar panels are designed so that these displaced electrons flow toward metal plates that line the outside of the panel. This creates an energy current.
  3. This electric current within the solar panel is a direct current (DC), which has to be converted into an alternating current (AC) in order to be used as electricity for a home. Inverters convert the current from each panel.
  4. This AC electricity can then be channeled to the primary circuit board of your home, where it can be directed either into the home's electrical system as power or into a battery to be stored for later use. If your utility company has a net metering program, you can also send excess energy to your local power grid in exchange for energy credits.

Usable sunlight hits a solar cell, which sets off the photovoltaic effect.Alejomiranda / Getty Images

Solar PV is one of the best methods we have today for generating power on a large scale with a renewable, clean resource like solar energy.

Why Switch to Solar Energy?

The benefits of solar power go beyond just saving money on your energy bills; you can take complete control of your electricity use and energy efficiency, reducing or even eliminating your reliance on utility companies. Even more impactful, you can directly lower greenhouse gas emissions and your reliance on fossil fuels, which provides a number of tangible environmental benefits.

But are solar panels really worth it for homes and businesses? Let's walk through the pros and cons of solar energy.

Environmental Benefits of Solar Energy

The environmental benefits surrounding solar energy are perhaps the most well known:

  • Being a clean and renewable energy resource, collecting solar energy directly offsets carbon emissions and air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels like oil and gas.
  • Though not as well publicized, mining and burning coal, as well as fracking natural gas, require an extremely high volume of freshwater. Using solar energy rather than non-renewable resources contributes to healthier water systems by fighting water scarcity and acidification.
  • No matter which way you look at it, solar technology helps us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and the companies that profit off of environmental degradation. Every single home that goes solar gives a small slice of power back to the people.

Financial Benefits of Solar Energy

There are also a number of financial perks that come with solar, including:

  • Solar energy use can reduce your monthly electric bills and, in some cases, eliminate those bills completely. This produces big cost savings over time.
  • When you buy solar panels, there are a number of tax credits, incentives and rebates available to offset startup costs, including some available at the federal level and some that are state-specific. More companies are adopting solar financing to increase accessibility.
  • Most residential and commercial solar systems will produce electricity for 20 to 30 years and require very little maintenance. This allows you to reliably budget your energy costs decades in advance rather than relying on power plants and public infrastructure, which is far less predictable.

Challenges of Solar Energy

Solar power is one of the best renewable energy sources available to us, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Some of the most significant challenges to solar energy include:

  • The initial cost of solar panels is fairly significant, typically ranging between $10,000 and $20,000. Tax incentives and monthly utility savings can offset this cost, but paying these upfront costs just isn't an option for every homeowner.
  • Some homes aren't suited for solar. If your house is shaded by trees or other buildings, or you don't get enough exposure to the sun, then a home solar system may not work out.
  • If you live in an area where electricity is inexpensive, then the savings you get from a solar system may not be worth the cost and the hassle.
  • It's much better to deal with a broken solar panel than a leaky oil rig, but even solar panels have an impact. With well over a million panels in use nationwide, we'll have to address the system for recycling solar panels.

Is My Home Suitable for a Residential Solar Energy System?

The best way to determine whether your home is a good fit for solar electricity is to contact a solar installer in your area. A solar energy specialist can come to take a look at your home and give you a custom recommendation.

Generally speaking, solar energy is best suited for those who live in sunny areas, have plenty of surface area on a south- or west-facing roof and whose homes are unobstructed by trees or neighboring buildings.

What to Look for in a Solar Energy System

As you shop around for home solar systems, make sure to keep the following factors in mind (read our guide to purchasing solar panels for more information):

  • The efficiency of your solar panels, or how much sunlight they actually turn into electricity (the most efficient solar panels convert over 20%).
  • The capacity of your solar battery storage system.
  • Warranties and other protections for your home solar system.
  • The total number of panels you need to get the desired results.
  • The services offered by your solar installer (such as individual system design).

If you're interested in solar, it only takes 30 seconds to get a free, no-obligation quote. You could save up to $2,500 per year on utility bills and get a tax rebate all while reducing your carbon footprint. Use this tool or fill out the form below to get started.

FAQ: What is Solar Energy?

What is solar energy in simple words?

Solar energy, in simple words, is the light and heat radiated by the sun. Here on Earth, we can collect that solar energy with solar panels and convert it into electricity we can use to power our homes.

What are five advantages of solar energy?

Five advantages of solar energy include:

  1. It's a truly renewable energy source that directly offsets carbon emissions and air pollution.
  2. It helps homeowners save money on power bills.
  3. There are low maintenance costs for homeowners.
  4. Solar can be used in remote applications to power homes or shelters that aren't connected to an energy grid.
  5. Solar panel manufacturing and installation creates thousands of green jobs per year.

How do you explain solar energy to a child?

Here's how we would explain solar energy to a child: You know how when you step into the sun, you feel hot? That heat is a form of energy. Solar panels are a way of catching that energy, and using it to power your home.

Karsten Neumeister is a writer and renewable energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.
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