As we transition from spring into summer in this era of
renewable energy, the exuberant warmth of the sun brings with it many benefits,
including solar energy. Sunlight is the
most abundant energy resource on earth, and it has been used by humans for
thousands of years for staying warm and drying foods to preserve them. The sun’s rays are so plentiful that 173,000 terawatts of
solar energy, which is greater than 10,000 times the world’s total
energy use, strike the earth continuously.
What Is Solar Energy and
How Does It Work?
(PV) cells, also known as solar cells, collect and then change
sunlight directly into electricity. The
cells can be tiny enough to power a single watch or other small electronic
device. Several cells in PV panels and
arrangements of PV panel arrays can produce enough electricity for an entire
house. Or a power plant spanning several
acres with large arrays of PV panels is capable of powering entire communities.
Photons are the particles of solar energy that make up
sunlight. They have varying amounts of
energy related to the different wavelengths of the solar spectrum. When photons encounter PV cells, they either
reflect off the cell, pass through it, or are absorbed into semiconductor
material contained in it. The absorbed
photons provide the energy to generate electricity. When enough sunlight is absorbed, electrons
are dislodged from the material’s atoms.
The movement of electrons carrying a negative charge toward
the front surface of the solar cell creates an electrical charge imbalance
between the front and the back of the cell, which fosters a voltage potential much
like that of the negative and positive terminals in a battery. Electrons on the cell are absorbed by
electrical conductors. When the
conductors are connected in an electrical circuit to an external load,
electricity flows in the circuit.
Although there is an abundance of sunlight, the percentage
of conversion to electricity via commercially available PV cell modules is
generally between 5% and 15%. There is
still much research to be done to achieve higher efficiencies.
We’ve Been Using
Solar Power for How Long?
The solar oven, used in the 1830s by British astronomer John
Herschel to cook food while on expedition in Africa, is one of the earliest
examples of a solar collection device.
Since then, a variety of solar collection devices have been developed
for multiple uses.
Solar power’s unprecedented growth has made it an
increasingly popular source of renewable energy. In fact, the first silicon solar cell, which
was the precursor of all modern solar-powered devices harnessing the almost
limitless energy of the sun and propelling technology into the renewable energy
era, was built in 1954 by Bell Laboratories.
Another early use of solar energy which also served as proof
of the viability and reliability of the source, is the Vangard
1. Powered by solar cells, it
is the oldest manmade satellite still orbiting the earth today.
Technological advances, government policies, financial
incentives and decreased cost have helped to expand solar energy use
significantly since the 1990s. Hundreds
of thousands of PV systems are now installed in the United States and the U.S. Energy information
Administration (EIA) estimates that electricity generated in PV
power plants increased from 76 million kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2008 to 63
billion kWh in 2018.
The Good and the Bad
Aside from being a plentiful and ongoing resource, there are
other benefits to solar energy. Solar
energy systems don’t produce air pollution, nor do they produce carbon dioxide,
and the systems attached to buildings have very minimal effects on the
However, despite being a very clean energy source, solar energy has its downfalls. The amount of sunlight hitting the earth varies significantly depending on location, time of day, time of year, and weather conditions. And the amount of sunlight that touches a square foot is small, thus a large surface area is required to collect a useful amount of energy.
If you’re interested in renewable energy or considering enrolling in a renewable energy price plan, AEP Energy ECO-Advantage® is for you! Click here to see all of our price plan options!
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