Solar panels with night skyline.

What Is Solar Energy? Understanding Power From The Sun

Jun 24, 2022

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Every hour, enough solar energy – which simply means sunlight – falls on parts of the earth to meet the energy demands of every person on the planet for one year.

Solar panels, or photovoltaic cells, are a way to use that plentiful source of energy to shrink our carbon footprint. Businesses, governments and individuals are all adopting technologies to make use of solar energy – or solar radiation – at a fast rate. Their reasons vary: Some want to reduce their electricity costs, while others hope to produce their own electricity or reduce emissions from conventional power plants.

Solar energy technology can help meet all these goals. Let’s take a closer look at how we can use solar energy, and then delve into some helpful solar energy terms.

What Is Solar Power?

Solar power is the electricity generated by harnessing solar energy; technologies like solar panels are used to collect sunlight and convert it into useful electricity. This promises to be a cleaner, cheaper way to produce power compared to coal, natural gas and other conventional methods of generating electricity.

Manufacturing solar panels still requires energy and some potentially hazardous chemicals, but solar energy offers a lower environmental impact than the continued use of fossil fuels.

What Is Solar Energy Used For?

Solar energy has plenty of uses. Below, you’ll find just a few of the applications for solar power.

Powering Homes, Businesses And Other Buildings

Solar panels are now a common sight on buildings. Check your neighborhood carefully and you’ll likely notice roofs equipped with solar panels. Government-funded buildings such as public schools often install solar panels to comply with sustainability goals. Businesses sometimes find solar panels an effective way to shade parking lots while also saving money and demonstrating their commitment to clean energy. Utility companies also use solar generating stations, or solar farms, to replace power plants that are less cost-effective.

Homes can use other forms of solar power, including solar water heating and forced hot air.

Lighting, Signage And Traffic Devices

Using solar panels to power a traffic signal or light is sometimes easier than connecting it to the grid. Take a closer look at some traffic signals and lights, and you might see that they’re solar powered.

Solar power is also changing backyard lighting. A visit to your local hardware store will reveal solar-powered accent lights and automated security lights.

Portable Devices

Solar power is making camping easier, whether you’re a car camper or backpacker. Solar-powered generators are available if you prefer spending a few days at a campground.

If every ounce matters, inflatable solar-powered lanterns allow you to skip batteries and save space. You can also stay connected with solar charging banks that will keep your devices powered even far away from civilization.

Charging Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles use their power far more efficiently than fossil fuel-powered vehicles. The best way to make them even cleaner and more efficient is to charge them with solar power. It’s now possible to install free-standing solar canopies that aren’t attached to the grid. They make and store their own electricity – meaning drivers can charge at night, too.

Space Exploration

The InSight lander and Ingenuity lander are using solar power to explore the surface of Mars. The International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, the Juno mission and many other spacecrafts have also relied on solar energy.

Typically, spacecrafts use solar power for propulsion, running sensors, heating the spacecraft and telemetry.

Solar Energy Definitions: Translating the Jargon

Researching solar energy for your home comes with a learning curve. This includes a lengthy list of vocabulary words you’ll need to understand.

Below are some terms you’re likely to hear when researching solar panels or meeting with a solar consultant to discuss installing a solar power system on your home. For a deeper dive into the more technical side, check the glossary published by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

Alternating Current (AC)

The type of current that the grid feeds into your home. It’s easier for utilities to control AC voltage, which is why it’s used for the grid.

Array

Another name for a group of solar panels (i.e., solar array).

Cells

The smallest semiconductor part of a solar module that helps convert sunlight into electricity. There are multiple cells in a single solar panel.

Direct Current (DC)

The type of electricity that solar panels produce. You must convert DC to AC to power a building. Battery-powered devices also use DC.

Electrical Grid

The system of electricity generation and distribution, usually covering a very wide service area.

Electron

A particle of an atom. Electric current flows when electrons move through an electrical conductor.

Energy Storage

Batteries used to store energy. Homeowners can use them to move their home off the grid, act as a backup power source or save money when using appliances during peak usage hours.

Gigawatt (GW)

A unit of power equal to 1 billion watts, 1 million kilowatts or 1,000 megawatts.

Grid-tied

A solar array that’s connected to and supplies power to the local electricity grid.

Inverter

A component that converts DC power produced by solar panels into AC power that a home or electricity grid can use.

Kilowatt (kW)

 A standard unit of electrical power equal to 1,000 watts.

Kilowatt-hour (kWh)

A thousand watts acting over a period of 1 hour. The kWh is a unit of energy. For comparison, the average daily electricity for homes in the U.S. is about 30 kWh.

Microinverter

A small inverter that converts DC power to AC power for a single solar panel.

Module

An assembly of connected solar cells. Often known as a panel. 

Net Metering

A system that credits homeowners in certain areas who produce energy from the sun for the electricity they add to the grid. Net metering is also considered a powerful incentive for homeowners to install solar panels.

Payback Period

The time required for the savings from solar panel installation to exceed the cost of installing the system.

Peak Demand

The maximum energy demand during a specific time.

Perovskite Solar Panels

A new type of solar panel that promises as much as 50% more efficiency than current solar panels while being cheaper and easier to manufacture. The technology is still under development.

Photovoltaic (PV)

A term related to the direct conversion of light into energy. Often used as a synonym for solar (i.e., solar panels/PV panels, solar array/PV array, etc.).

Power Rating

The theoretical power output of a PV cell in ideal conditions.

Racking

The mounting hardware used to safely fix solar panels on roofs, the ground or other spaces.

Solar Carport

A free-standing structure used to capture solar energy while also providing shelter for a car. Often an alternative for homes that don’t have another appropriate space to mount solar panels. Also called a solar canopy.

Tracker

Mounting hardware that allows the solar panel to move throughout the day to collect the most sunlight. Typically only used in commercial and utility-scale arrays.

Watt (W)

A common measurement of electrical energy.

The Bottom Line: Solar Power Offers Cheaper, Cleaner Energy

If you’re concerned about the rising costs of utility bills, you’re not alone. Prices are up nearly everywhere in the country. Electricity prices in the New York metro area surged nearly 30% due to natural gas costs, notes the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Renewable energy sources offer the possibility of reducing these costs, especially with solar prices plummeting for utilities.

If you want to avoid rising electricity costs while also addressing climate change, find out whether equipping your home with solar power is worth the effort.

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