Solar Energy Basics

by Rachel Laurendeau on April 19, 2012

In honor of Earth Week 2012, we are dedicating a number of this week’s blog posts to actions that can be taken by homeowners in an effort to make our homes more eco-friendly.

If you are undertaking home improvements and want to make environmentally conscious changes to your heating and cooling system or if you want to produce your own electricity, there are various ways to produce energy from renewable resources. There are a wide variety of options on the market, from wind turbines to geothermal systems to solar panels. Choosing the alternative energy source that works best for you in your particular environment takes a good deal of research and education. Here is a primer on solar energy to get you started.

How Does Solar Energy Work?

Energy from the sun is captured and converted into other forms of energy such as heat and electricity. Thermal (heat) energy can be used to heat water in homes and swimming pools, or to heat indoor air. But, let’s focus strictly on electricity for today.

Sunlight, or solar energy, is converted directly into electricity via Photovoltaic (PV) cells. The PV cells are grouped into panels and arrays of panels. This is typically what you see on the roof of individual homes or businesses, placed in the sun’s most direct path. PV cells are made of semiconductor materials such as silicon. When light strikes the cell, the semiconductor material absorbs some of it. Basically, the energy of the sunlight is absorbed by the material. This energy knocks the electrons loose, providing them with enough energy to travel. The electric field in the PV cells forces the electrons to flow in a certain direction, this is the electric current which can be drawn from the cells.

It’s a much more complicated process than this, but this is a basic overview without having to go back to university to study physics!

Benefits of Solar Energy

  • Solar energy production does not produce air or water pollutants.
  • If located on top of a home, solar panels have minimal environmental impact.
  • Reduces the amount of energy you need to purchase from your local utility, thus saving you money.

Limitations of Solar Energy

  • Sunlight is not constant or guaranteed and varies by location, time of year, time of day and weather.
  • In order to collect a sufficient amount of energy, a large surface area of PV cells is required.
  • According to the EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration), while using solar energy produces no air or water pollution and no greenhouse gases, it does have some indirect impacts on the environment. Certain toxic materials and chemicals, and various solvents and alcohols are used in the manufacturing process of PV cells, and can make their way back into the environment during production.
  • The upfront cost of purchasing and installing solar panels on your house is quite high. Depending on energy costs where you live, the panels may take a long time to pay for themselves. However, if you are more concerned with sustainability and using renewable resources than you are with cost, please disregard this last point.

If you would like to learn more about installing solar panels on your house, talk to your local roofing specialist or a home improvement expert who is specialized in the installation of alternative energy systems.

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