The Ins and Outs of Solar Power… and How It Benefits You

We hear a lot about solar power these days. The Earth’s natural resources only go so far to help us produce energy. But we have a free and powerful energy source in the sky. So why not take advantage of it? 

We all know that solar power involves the sun’s rays to deliver heat. And many of us know that photovoltaic (PV) cells convert that heat into energy.

We understand that energy produced by the sun can be used to power a variety of electronic devices. But for many of us, our basic knowledge of the topic ends there.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it. Today I want to dig deeper into solar power. Focusing mainly on what it is and how it works. As well as how we can use this free energy to cut back on our reliance on expensive forms of energy. 

It’s a power plant in the sky

When many of us hear the phrase “solar power,” we first think of solar panels. We see them on top of houses and businesses. As well as in large fields dedicated to this purpose.

Using solar panels to create electricity in our homes is a great way to become more self-sufficient. And to save money and preserve the environment.

The best thing about it is that the source of this energy is free. Our sun has been called a power plant in the sky.

Old Sol has enough energy to power all our needs. It won’t run out. Well, at least not for another 5 billion years or so. And it doesn’t give off carbon dioxide emissions.

PV cells jump-start electrons

The key is figuring out how to harness that energy. And turn it into the electrical power we need to run our world.

Rays coming from the sun take about eight minutes to arrive here from that ball of fire some 93 million miles away. They provide heat we can feel on our skin on a sunny day. But we need certain materials to convert that energy into electricity.

Enter solar panels, which are made up of PV cells. These cells are typically made from silicon, which is a semiconductor. The bonds of a crystal – located between silicon atoms – consist of electrons shared between all the crystal’s atoms.

When the sun’s rays start becoming absorbed, electrons in the bonds get “excited” to a higher energy level. Now set into motion, they move around more freely than when they were bound. And that’s what produces a flow of electric current.  

Solar panels have multiple parts

After absorbing the sun’s energy, PV cells convert it to DC electricity. The solar inverter then converts DC electricity to AC electricity. That’s what’s used by most home appliances.

The electricity flowing through a home powers electronic devices. Excess electricity produced by solar panels is fed to the electric grid. 

Regardless of whether it’s large or small, the typical solar panel contains a layer of silicon cells and a metal frame. Plus a glass casing offering durability and protection for the silicon PV cells. As well as wiring to allow current to flow from the cells.

There’s also a layer of insulation to keep the temperature in check. And a back sheet that protects against heat dissipation and humidity inside the panel. Plus a reflective coating that increases sunlight absorption.

The costs keep dropping

Silicon is not a metal. But it does have conductive properties allowing it to absorb and convert sunlight into electricity. Silicon solar cells are usually manufactured in one of two cell formations. They are monocrystalline or polycrystalline.

The difference is that monocrystalline cells consist of a single silicon crystal. Polycrystalline cells are made up of fragments or shards of silicon.

The mono format gives electrons more room to move around. This results in a higher efficiency of solar technology.

For a number of years, scientists’ enthusiasm about solar energy was tempered by high costs. But those costs have come down significantly over the past 15 years or so.

Solar photovoltaic module prices have dropped by 89 percent since 2010. They may drop by another 34 percent by 2030. And by 2050, they should drop by about 63 percent.     

Powering a generator

The large solar panels we see on rooftops are only part of the equation. Smaller solar panels – which can be used individually or by daisy-chaining them – can also be used to power specific electronic items. Including generators.

Smaller solar panels generate less electricity. But they are sufficient for a number of tasks. Assuming they receive the sunlight they need. And that the cells within them are efficient.

For example, if a 100-watt solar panel receives unobstructed sunshine during afternoon hours for just one hour, it should generate 100 watt-hours of electricity.

That same panel will produce less electricity in the morning and early evenings when the sun is lower in the sky.

However, you can maximize the electricity it will produce during those times by angling it toward the sun. And by making sure there is no shade on the panel. Shade on one cell can negatively affect the efficiency of other cells.

Smaller solar-powered devices have much smaller solar panels. But they do the same kind of work that keeps them powered up.

Little maintenance, long lifespan

Let me conclude with a couple of notes about the care and feeding of solar panels.

One of the many great things about solar panels is they require very little maintenance. If you can do a very light cleaning two to four times per year, they should last between 25 and 30 years.

But be very careful when you clean them. Use a soft-bristled cleaning brush and a non-abrasive cleaning agent.

You can use cold water to rinse. The best time to clean them is early in the morning before they get hot. That’s because cold water and hot panels don’t play well together.

Utilizing solar power will save you money, make you more self-reliant, and help protect the environment. And that’s a winning trifecta.

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