the sun: too close to the sun and life would not have been possible as it would have been too hot; a bit further away and its rays would have not reached our planet to support the processes of photosynthesis upon which plants, crops and so many other things rely on to grow.
But humans have long understood how the sun’s energy can be harnessed for a variety of things beyond the natural world, including to generate energy. Technology has allowed us to explore the different ways that the sun can power everyday activities in our homes and work.
While there are many forms of solar energy, perhaps the most recognisable one is solar panels. Solar panels are panels designed to absorb the sun’s rays as a source of energy for generating electricity or heating.
Today, you can easily identify them on rooftops and balconies but even in large fields in the countryside. Some have rather elaborate designs too such as the 22-acre solar power farm which Walt Disney World unveiled a few years go which was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head¹.
Generating electricity with solar panels
In order for the solar panels to generate energy, it needs sunlight to create a reaction between protons and electrons which allow the second to be freed from the atoms generating a flow of electricity. Each solar panel is made up by smaller units called photovoltaic cells. Each photovoltaic cell is made up of two layers of semi-conducting material, usually silicon.
To work, the photovoltaic cells need to establish an electric field, which occurs when opposite charges are separated. To achieve this, manufacturers combine silicon with other materials so that they create either a positive or a negative charge². Adding phosphorous into the top layer of silicon of a photovoltaic cell created a negative charge while adding boron on the other layer of silicon creates a positive charge.
So when the protons of sunlight hit the cell, it knocks the electrons free and the electric field pushes that electron out of the silicon junction. Metal conductive plates on the sides of the cell collect the electrons and transfer them to wires. At that point, the electrons can flow like any other source of electricity².
And if this technological feat was not enough, solar panels provide a number of benefits too!
- Studies by academics in the University of Stanford have highlighted that using renewable energy (a mixture of solar and wind more specifically) could “save 2.5 million to 3 million lives a year and simultaneously halt global warming, reduce air and water pollution”.
- Other researchers have concluded that when considering factors like the cost of ill health and environmental damage due to pollution, switching to renewable energy could save up to $740bn per year by 2030.
The benefits of having solar panels
In the first instance, there are clear environmental benefits that the use of solar panels can help us reap. The first is that all renewable energy, including solar power, is an important ally in the fight against climate change.
Greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2 generated by man-made activities such as industrial processes and transportation are among the greatest contributors to climate change. While using fossil fuels to power our energy needs has serious consequences for our environment, solar energy does not.
In other words, to produce solar power, solar panels do not emit a single atom of carbon dioxide.
Many however argue that there are environmental and resource impacts in the production of solar panels. That is of course true. But when we look at the overall environmental footprint and lifecycle assessment of solar panels compared to conventional energy sources by fossil fuels, it is clear that solar panels do not cause the planet a fraction of the impact. For example, one company’s solar panels have a carbon footprint per unit of energy production that is 95% lower than that of fossil fuel power plants ³.
There are also clear health benefits linked to the fact that solar power does not emit any air pollutants that can cause a range of respiratory diseases.
Benefits beyond those shared by all forms of renewable energy
The first is that not only does using solar panels save you money on your utility bills but because of technological advancements and governmental support, prices for acquiring solar panels are becoming increasingly competitive. This means you will see a return on your investment within a few months!
What is more solar energy systems don’t require a lot of maintenance. The most important thing is keeping them relatively clean by cleaning them a couple of times per year. Solar panels from reliable manufacturers also come with a 20-25-year warranty. Installing a solar panel is relatively straightforward but because there are no moving parts, there is very little wear and tear⁴.
In practical terms, research in the US indicates that solar panels can bring in monthly savings of well above $100 for many homes. Within 20 years this translates to over $30,000 ⁵. That is certainly a very impressive number!
While changing utility providers at your home or place of work can be a hassle, choosing a company to help you find good quality solar panels is not. Not only is there a plethora of manufacturers in the US, Europe and Asia but there are a number of specialised consultancies that can help advise you on what are the best options for you. This helps you make informed decisions without having to go into great lengths by researching companies and solar panel performances.
What is also particularly good with solar panels is that in contrast to other forms of renewable energy such as geothermal or wind, they can be installed in most houses or apartment buildings. This is because the solar panels themselves can be tailored to fit smaller or bigger spaces. However, larger spaces means more solar panels can be installed which maximises your solar power potential.
Having said that, solar technology is moving on and now instead of heavy set solar panels consumers can install those panels directly on their roof while bigger business buildings can incorporate them on their exterior walls too.
Indeed, the case for solar energy and solar panels as a way of converting the sun’s power into energy is so strong that it did not escape the observations of Thomas Edison to whom the following quote is attributed: