Solar power describes a number of methods of harnessing energy from the light of the Sun. It has been present in many traditional building methods for centuries, but has become of increasing interest in developed countries as the environmental costs and limited supply of other power sources such as fossil fuels are realized. It is already in widespread use where other supplies of power are absent such as in remote locations and in space.
As the Earth orbits the Sun, it receives approximately 1,400 W / m² of energy, as measured upon a surface kept normal (at a right angle) to the Sun (this number is referred to as the solar constant). Of the energy received, roughly 19% is absorbed by the atmosphere, while clouds on average reflect a further 35% of the total energy. The generally accepted standard is 1020 watts per square meter at sea level.
After passing through the Earth's atmosphere, most of the sun's energy is in the form of visible and ultraviolet light. Plants use solar energy to create chemical energy through photosynthesis. We use this energy when we burn wood or fossil fuels.
Classifications of solar power
Direct or indirect
Solar power can be classified as direct or indirect.
Direct solar power involves only one transformation into a usable form.
- Sunlight hits a photovoltaic cell (also called photoelectric cell) creating electricity.
- Sunlight hits a dark surface and the surface warms when the light is converted to heat by interacting with matter. The heat is used to heat a room or water.
Indirect solar power involves more than one transformation to reach a usable form.
- Systems to close insulating shutters or move shades.
Many other types of power generation are indirectly solar-powered. Plants use photosynthesis to convert solar energy to chemical energy, which can later be burned as fuel to generate electricity; oil and coal originated as plants. Hydroelectric dams and wind turbines are indirectly powered by the sun to some degree.
Passive or active
Solar power can also be classified as passive or active:
Passive solar systems are systems that do not involve the input of any other forms of energy apart from the incoming sunlight.
Active solar This usually refers to system which use additional mechanisms such as circulation pumps, air blowers or automatic systems which aim collectors at the sun.
Types of solar power applications
Most solar energy used today is harnessed as heat or electricity.
Solar design in architecture
Solar design is the use of architectural features to replace the use of grid electricity and fossil fuels with the use of solar energy and decrease the energy needed in a home or building with insulation and efficient lighting and appliances.
- Architectural features used in solar design:
- South-facing (for the Northern Hemisphere) or north-facing (for the Southern Hemisphere) windows with insulated glazing that has high ultraviolet transmittance.
Thermal masses -- any masses such as walls or roofs that absorb and hold the sun's heat. Materials with high specific heat like stone, concrete, adobe or water work best. See Trombe walls.
- Insulating shutters for windows to be closed at night and on overcast days. These trap solar heat in the building.
- Fixed awnings positioned to create shade in the summer and exposure to the sun in the winter.
- Movable awnings to be repositioned seasonally.
- A well insulated and sealed building envelope.
- Exhaust fans in high humidity areas.
- Passive or active warm air solar panels. Pass air over black surfaces fixed behind a glass pane. The air is heated by the sun and flows into the building.
- Active solar panels using water or antifreeze solutions. These get hot in the sun and the hot liquid is used to heat the building or in a solar hot water system.
- Passive solar panels for preheating potable water.
- Photovoltaic systems to provide electricity.
Solar chimneys for cooling.
Solar hot water
Solar hot water systems are quite common in some countries where a small flat panel collector is mounted on the roof and able to meet most of a household's hot water needs. Cheaper flat panel collectors are also often used to heat swimming pools, thereby extending their swimming seasons.
A solar box cooker traps the Sun's power in an insulated box; these have been successfully used for cooking, pasteurization and fruit canning. Solar cooking is helping many developing countries, both reducing the demands for local firewood and maintaining a cleaner environment for the cooks. The first known western solar oven is attributed to Horace de Saussure.
Solar cells (also referred to as photovoltaic cells) are devices or banks of devices that use the photovoltaic effect of semiconductors to generate electricity directly from the sunlight. Because of high manufacturing costs, their use has been limited until recently. One cost-effective use has been in very low-power devices such as calculators with LCDs. Another has been remote applications such as roadside emergency telephones, remote sensing, cathodic protection of pipe lines, and limited "off grid" home power applications. A third has been to power orbiting satellites and other spacecraft.
However, the continual decline of manufacturing costs (dropping at 3% to 5% a year in recent years) is expanding the range of cost-effective uses. The average retail cost of a large solar panel declined from $7.50 to $4 per watt between 1990 and 2005. With many jurisdictions now giving tax and rebate incentives, solar electric power can now pay for itself in five to ten years in many places. "Grid-connected" systems - that is, systems with no battery that connect to the utility grid through a special inverter - now make up the largest part of the market. In 2004 the worldwide production of solar cells increased by 60%. 2005 is expected to see large growth again, but shortages of refined silicon have been hampering production worldwide since late 2004.
Solar thermal power plants
The two main types of solar thermal power plants are Solar Chimneys and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants.
Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants
Solar thermal power plants generally use reflectors to concentrate sunlight into a heat absorber. Such powerplants are known as Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants.
Heliostat mirror power plants (power towers) use an array of flat, moveable mirrors to focus the sun's rays upon a collector tower (the target). The high energy at this point of concentrated sunlight is transferred to a substance that can store the heat for later use. The more recent heat transfer material that has been successfully demonstrated is liquid sodium. Sodium is a metal with a high heat capacity, allowing that energy to be stored and drawn off throughout the evening. That energy can, in turn, be used to boil water for use in steam turbines. Water had originally been used as a heat transfer medium in earlier power tower versions (where the resultant steam was used to power a turbine). This system did not allow for power generation during the evening. Examples of heliostat based power plants are the 10 MWe Solar One, Solar Two and the 15 MW Solar Tres plants. In South Africa a solar power plant is planned with 4000 to 5000 heliostat mirrors, each having an area of 140 m².
- A parabolic trough power plant is another type of solar thermal collector. It consists of a series of troughs rather like rainwater guttering with a hollow tube running its length. Sunlight is reflected by the mirror and concentrated on the tube. Heat transfer fluid runs through the tube to absorb heat from the concentrated sunlight and is used to power a steam turbine.
- A Dish/Sterling System or Parabolic Reflector power plant is rather like a large satellite dish but with the inside surface made of mirror material. It focuses all the sun's energy to a single point and can achieve very high temperatures. Typically the dish is coupled with a Stirling engine, but also sometimes a steam engine, to create rotational kinetic energy that can be converted to electricity using an electric generator.
- A Linear Fresnel reflector power plant uses a series of parabolic reflectors to focus light onto a linear absorber. Recent prototypes of these types of systems have been built in Australia (CLFR) and Belgium (SolarMundo).
A solar chimney is a solar thermal power plant where air passes under a very large agricultural glass house (between 2 and 30 kilometres in diameter), is heated by the sun and channeled upwards towards a convection tower. It then rises naturally and is used to drive turbines, which generate electricity.
There have been experiments to harness energy by absorbing sunlight in a chemical reaction in a way similar to photosynthesis without using living organisms but no practical process has yet emerged.
For a stand-alone system, some means must be employed to store the collected energy for use during hours of darkness or cloud cover: -
Storage always has an extra stage of energy conversion, with consequent energy losses, greatly increasing capital costs. One way around this is to export excess power to the power grid, drawing it back when needed. This effectively uses the power grid as a battery.
Deployment of solar power
Deployment of solar power depends largely upon local conditions and requirements. But as all industrialised nations share a need for electricity, it is clear that solar power will increasingly be used to supply a cheap, reliable electricity supply.
In some areas of the U.S., solar electric systems are already competitive with utility systems. As of 2002, there is a list of technical conditions: There must be many sunny days. The systems must sell power to the grid, avoiding battery costs. The solar systems must be inexpensively mass-purchased, which usually means they must be installed at the time of construction. Finally, the region must have high power prices. For example, Southern California has about 260 sunny days a year, making it the best possible venue. Even there, it only yields about 4%/yr returns on investment when systems are installed at $9/watt (not cheap, but feasible), utility prices are at $0.095 per kilowatt-hour (the current base rate), and neglecting all maintenance costs. On-grid solar power can be especially feasible when combined with time-of-use net metering, since the time of maximum production is largely coincident with the time of highest pricing.
Europe & Japan
Several experimental photovoltaic (PV) power plants of 300 - 500 kW capacity are connected to electricity grids in Europe and the U.S. Japan has 150 MWe installed. A large solar PV plant is planned for the island of Crete. Research continues into ways to make the actual solar collecting cells less expensive and more efficient. Other major research is investigating economic ways to store the energy which is collected from the sun's rays during the day.
A large parabolic reflector solar furnace is located in the Pyrenees at Odeillo , France. It is used for various research purposes. 
Main Renewable resource, Renewable energy, Sustainable design, Future energy development Soft energy path
Solar: Solar box cooker, Solar thermal energy, Sun, Solar power satellite, Current solar income
Energy crisis: 1973 energy crisis, 1979 energy crisis
Electricity: Electricity generation, Electricity retailing, Energy storage, Green electricity, Direct current, Photoelectric effect, Power station, Power supply, Microwave power transmission, Solar cell, Power plant, Solar chimney
Lists: List of conservation topics, List of physics topics
People: Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Eames, Charles Kettering Farrington Daniels
Other: Autonomous building, Solar-Club/CERN-Geneva-Switzerland, Electric vehicle, Mass driver, Clock of the Long Now, Tidal power, Smart 1, Science in the United States, Slope Point, Back to the land, Architectural engineering, Ecology
Last updated: 08-07-2005 21:48:34