Life on this planet relies on the power of 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 we 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 recognizable one are 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 solar panels 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 head .
Generating electricity with solar panels
Solar panels need sunlight to generate electricity. They do this by creating a reaction between protons and electrons, which allows electrons to be freed from the atoms and generate electricity. Each solar panel is made up of smaller units called photovoltaic cells. Each photovoltaic cell consists of two layers of semi-conducting material, usually silicon.
To work, photovoltaic cells need to establish an electric field, which occurs when opposite charges are separated. To achieve this, manufacturers combine silicon with other materials to create either a positive or a negative charge .
Adding phosphorus into the top layer of silicon of a photovoltaic cell creates 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 in any other source of electricity .
And if this technological feat was not enough, there are numerous benefits of having solar panels too!
- Studies by academics at the University of Stanford have highlighted that using renewable energy (solar and wind energy combined) 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.
It sounds like fiction, but these benefits of solar power are real and we could start experiencing them by making renewable energy the norm.
Advantages of installing solar panels on your home
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.
#1 No greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions, like CO2 generated by our 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.
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 percent lower than that of fossil fuel power plants .
#2 No air pollution
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.
#3 Quick return on investment
The first benefit 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.
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 . That is certainly a very impressive number!
This means you will see a return on your investment within a few years!
#4 Easy maintenance
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.
#5 Long term warranty and simple installation process
Solar panels from reliable manufacturers also come with a 20-25-year warranty. Installing a solar panel is relatively straightforward and because there are no moving parts, there is very little wear and tear .
#6 Good availability of professional services
While changing utility providers at your home or work place 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 specialized consultancies that can help advise you on what are the best options for you.
This helps you make informed decisions about using solar power at home without having to go into great lengths by researching companies and their performances.
#7 Easy to implement
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 on most houses or apartment buildings.
This is because the solar panels themselves can be tailored to fit smaller or bigger spaces. However, larger spaces mean 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.
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 even escape the observations of Thomas Edison to whom the following quote is attributed:
I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until coal and oil run out before we tackle that.— Thomas Edison
Solar panel technology: What’s new in 2019?
Things have changed in the past few years as new discoveries and new developments have changed the solar power landscape.
The biggest overall improvements in the solar industry is simply the growing range of applications that are benefiting from clean renewable power. In other words, solar panels have grown far beyond the simple “household power on the rooftop” arrangement, and now can be found in so many diverse areas around the world.
It is no longer just about clean energy but also about an energy source that is portable and that can be used in remote areas where centralized power generation doesn’t work. Electrical equipment can still function in war-torn areas or places devastated by natural disasters.
There have also been a number of technological advances, with new materials leading to thinner and more flexible panels. The standard construction of solar panels has been the same for decades and is finally moving past the long-standing silicon cell design into new territory.
Advances in Energy Storage
The panels themselves are only half of the solar power equation. Battery capacity to hold and discharge the generated electricity is vital to an efficient and effective solar power system.
How are batteries improving?
Tesla is one company at the forefront of battery development as they push the capabilities of their electric cars. But vehicle applications are only part of Tesla’s vision.
Their Powerwall is a lithium ion system that connects seamlessly to a solar panel system. It’s smaller, lighter, and has a much longer lifespan than the traditional lead-acid products. Depending on the installation details, the cost is relatively similar so it’s not priced out of reach for residential use.
Lithium ion batteries are a step in the right direction and we’re generally familiar with them since they’ve been powering our phones and mobiles devices for years. But another approach is to create rechargeable batteries that use more abundant, and less toxic, sodium ions instead of lithium.
You’ll likely find sodium-based batteries available for use with solar systems in the near future, meaning much lower costs.
New Solar Applications
Some new applications are more about placement than design, and large floating solar farms is one example of that. Large open bodies of water are just “wasted” space, and some PV projects are looking to take advantage of that unused potential.
The largest project with floating panels is set to be complete in 2018, with 50,000 panels on the surface of the Yamakura dam reservoir in Japan. This installation should produce enough power for 5,000 homes. Granted, that’s not huge compared to the usual land projects, but it represents a new aspect to solar placement that can be used to develop in new areas.
In a similar example of using existing space for new solar projects, durable PV panels are being used to line roadways and sidewalks for power generation. The first project of this kind opened up in France in 2016, and the iconic Route 66 in the USA is also part of a test trial with new solar sidewalks along one stretch of the famous road.
Small-scale versions of this application are used along pedestrian walkways to power their lights, but larger installations can generate power for other uses as well.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from these heavy-duty durable panels, is the finer and thinner versions that are being developed into extremely versatile flexible PV panels. New developments of fine photovoltaic fibers that can be woven into true fabric is creating a whole new field for solar power.
Curtains that can harvest sunlight coming in a window, or tents that create their own power are two applications that would be easy to implement once the fabric is created. Even items of clothing could be used. This technology is currently under development, and new advances are sure to be right around the corner.
As you can see, 2019 is looking to be an exciting year in solar power with many new innovations underway.