Solar Energy, in layman’s terms, is the energy that comes from sunlight that reaches earth. However, the sun is a complex ball of burning gases and the energy it radiates is even more complex to understand. Sunlight is composed of particles called photons which are produced at the core of the sun as a result of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen. From the core, the photon takes between 10,000 to 170,000 years to get to the surface, and 8.3 minutes to reach earth from the surface of the sun. The sunlight that is received by the earth is solar radiation, made up of ultraviolet light, x-rays, gamma rays, radio waves, infrared and visible light. After entering the earth, this light gets scattered and filtered through earth’s atmosphere, and the radiation that reaches the earth’s surface is the one that makes it possible for life to exist on earth and used by us to generate electricity.
The sun is believed to be 4.603 billion years old, while the modern humans on earth are 200,000 to 300,000, but it was only around 7th century BC when humans started using sunlight as energy source. The first known use was lighting fires by concentrating sunlight at a particular place using magnifying glass materials. Later, in 3rd century B.C., the Greeks and Romans were known to harness solar power with mirrors to light torches for religious ceremonies. These mirrors became a normalized tool referred to as “burning mirrors.” Evidence of using sunlight in similar way is found in the documents of Chinese civilization from 20 AD. Another early use for solar energy was the concept of sunrooms in buildings. These sunrooms, usually south-facing, used massive windows to direct sunlight into one concentrated area. Some of the iconic Roman bathhouses, typically those situated on the south-facing side of buildings, were sunrooms. These sunrooms are still popular today. According to a legend, solar energy was also used by Greek mathematician, Archimedes, to set besieging wooden ships from the Roman Empire on fire. Many years later, in early 1700s and 1800s, people started using sunlight for powering steam boats. But the most efficient use of sunlight till date is still producing electricity by harnessing solar energy using photovoltaic cells.
A photovoltaic cell, or solar cell, is an electrical device that converts the energy of light directly into electricity by the photovoltaic effect, which is a physical and chemical phenomenon. The history of photovoltaic cell begins with the discovery of photovoltaic effect by French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel in 1839. He was experimenting with a cell made of metal electrodes in a conducting solution when he noted that it produced more electricity when exposed to light. The observation by Becquerel was not replicated again until 1873, when Willoughby Smith discovered that the charge could be caused by light hitting selenium. Using Willoughby’s discovery of the photoconductive potential of selenium, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day started experimenting on it and by applying the photovoltaic principle discovered by Becquerel to selenium, in 1876, came to the conclusion that selenium, in fact, generate electricity when exposed to light. After few years, in 1883, American inventor Charles Fritz created the first working solar cell using selenium wafers. In 1939, Russell Ohl created the solar cell design that is used in many modern solar panels, and patented his design in 1941.
However, the solar cells created by Fritz were very inefficient, especially compared to coal-fired power plants, and the solar cell we know today are made with silicon, rather than selenium, so the true inventors of photovoltaic cells, as considered by most people, are Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson, who created the silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs in 1954. Many argue that this event marks the true invention of PV technology because it was the first instance of a solar technology that could actually power an electric device for several hours of a day. The first ever silicon solar cell could convert sunlight at four percent efficiency, less than a quarter of what modern cells are capable of. Since then, solar cells have seen many advancements to acquire greater efficiency.
By 1956, the first solar cells were commercially available at $300 per watt, which was far too expensive to be adopted at any significant scale. Instead, solar cells began appearing in toys and radios, the first iteration of the technology being adopted for commercial purposes. Another early use of solar technology was in outer space, where solar was used to power satellites in both US and Soviet space programmes. The first was the Vanguard I satellite in 1958, followed by Vanguard II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3. In 1964, NASA launched the Nimbus satellite, which ran entirely on its 470-watt photovoltaic solar panel array. In 1966, NASA launched the world’s first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, powered by a one-kilowatt array. The use of solar panels in the space program through the 1960s increased production and slowly the price reduced to around $100 per watt.
In the early 1970s, technological developments from Dr Elliot Berman research, funded by the Exxon Corporation, resulted in solar panel becoming more efficient than its predecessors. Even the cost went down from $100 per watt to around $20 per watt, allowing commercial viability for solar technology and leading to a turning point in the adoption of solar energy. But it was still costlier than generating electricity using coal which costed about $2 – $3 per watt. The real turning point for solar energy came in 1970s with the global energy crisis. The oil shortage led to increase in prices by multiple times and it became apparent that the world had need of a more diverse energy system. In 1977, the US embraced the development of solar energy by creating the Solar Energy Research Institute. Other countries worldwide followed suit in the creation of their own solar-dedicated institutions. This supported in further development of the solar technology and manufacturers continued making solar cell even smaller with more efficiency and lower cost. This continued pace of development is dotted with specific feats of engineering that brought notoriety and further technological development to the field. In 1981, Paul MacCready built Solar Challenger, the first aircraft to run on solar power equipped with over 1600 solar cells, and flew it across the English Channel from France to the England. In 1982, the first solar powered cars were developed in Germany, continuing the trend of solar-powered transportation. In 1980s many commercial power plants were developed and by the end of 20th century, in the 1990’s, the first grid-supported solar PV system was completed in Kerman, CA, as the world’s first instance of “distributed generation,” and Germany began setting capacity goals.
With the long history of solar technology, it’s notable that the real sea change for solar has been in the 20th century. Since the 1980s, the cost of solar panels has dropped 10 percent per year on average. These improvements in solar technology and cost reduction are thanks to scientists and engineers dedicated to solar as a leading source of clean, low-cost electricity for everyone.
5 Major Applications of Solar Energy
As per the current circumstance of the climate where the contamination level is soaring, it becomes significant for the people to take essential steps to advance a green climate. Solar power plants are proved to be a significant part of molding and saving our future. Solar power plants are playing a crucial part in advancing an eco-accommodating climate by performing self-power age. Solar power plants have been utilized for a long time in different households and commercial owners because of the few advantages it gives, including less force utilization, cost-saving, fewer support needs, advancing an eco-accommodating climate.
Solar power plants have been most famous for offering self-created energy that sets aside an immense expense. The solar panel consumes direct sunlight and generates electricity to run home appliances; this is possibly the most practical method of guaranteeing low power charges and creating environmentally friendly power energy. Solar energy can be utilized in various areas, including commercial, residential, roads, floating-solar farms, and solar fabrics. Let’s understand each one of them in detail.
Here are Five main Applications of Solar Energy:
Residential uses: A majority of households comprise rooftop solar plants in both urban and rural regions. Solar power plants have arisen to be probably the ideal alternative for regions where frequent power cuts are common. Solar power plants have been utilized for quite a while because of their self-energy generation from direct daylight and cost-viability. It helps in guaranteeing a low power bill on appliance utilization and advances cost-saving. Moreover, residential solar plants are easy to install and require less maintenance. It can serve you for quite a while to cut off on your power costs and save a considerable expense.
Commercial use: Solar force plants have arisen to be perhaps the best way for business and industrial owners to generate electricity. Solar energy gives the ideal approach to the battle against gigantic power bills. It lessens utility expenses as well as diminishes the dependence on the grid supply. With a higher return on investment, residential owners can secure their financial future. In addition to ensuring financial relief, commercial solar panels provide excellent benefits for the environment by promoting green energy. Installing a solar plant at your commercial place helps you ensure an easy supply of electricity and save many costs.
- Incorporating solar energy in roads offer various advantages, such as generating clean energy.
- Illuminating themselves at night.
- Melting down ice and snow during the colder months.
Providing solar energy coverage to the roads can help in generating approximately 80 percent of the energy needs. Several factors affect road energy production, including panel efficiency, tracking methods, panel angle, sunlight hours, and temperature. It is crucial to ensure the material of roads as the asphalt flexes are prone to cause damage to the rigid solar cells while concrete materials are less flexible and support solar cells.
Floating solar farms: In addition to the residential, commercial, and roadway use of solar energy, it can also be used on water bodies. Photovoltaics or photovoltaic (PV) solar power systems and designed to float on large water bodies. According to the research, Photovoltaics built on the large surfaces of water bodies can help in generating up to 10% of the country’s energy needs. Floating solar farms helps reduce the evaporative loss of water by suppressing algae blooms and reducing water treatment costs altogether. The technology is built on the farm area where there are significant water bodies. The solar panels float on the upper surface of the water and generate energy using direct sunlight.
Solar storage: With the continuous innovations in the modern age, now we can stitch small, flexible solar panels in the fabric of clothing. Solar fabrics or solar filaments are embedded in your clothing, such as shirts, winter coats, sweaters, jackets, which can consume energy from the direct sunlight and offer you several benefits such as keeping you warm, providing power to your mobile phone, portable electronics. In addition to this, Solar Filaments can also be used to lighten up building facades, awnings, curtains, and powering heated car seats.
Enhanced use of solar energy helps meet energy generation needs and ensures a green environment. Solar energy is being gradually used on a larger scale to ensure a better economy and cheap renewable energy supply.
Indirect Methods of Solar Energy Utilization (Including Benefits)
Solar Energy can be generated through various means; Direct methods, including thermal and photovoltaic, or Indirect methods, such as wind, biomass, wave energy, ocean thermal, and marine currents. Solar energy is best-known for offering self-generated energy that saves enormous costs. Solar plants consume energy from various indirect sources and generate electricity to run home appliances. It is one of the most cost-effective ways to ensure low electricity bills and generate green energy. Energy exists in various forms, which helps to harness the solar plants. Let’s understand Indirect methods of Solar Energy Utilization in detail:
5 Indirect Methods of Solar Energy Utilization-
Wind: The sun causes uneven heating of the earth’s surface, which generates atmospheric pressure. This pressure gives rise to the wind waves that occur out of diffusion. The area near the poles is comparatively less warm than the area near the equator, which makes it more vulnerable to the rise of hot air and pressure. The difference in pressure makes the cold wind flow from the poles towards the equator. The cycle continues as the warm air now migrates to the poles and gets cooled up.
Biomass: Biomass is known as the organic material produced by plants and animals. As we all know, plants use solar energy to perform photosynthesis and produce their food; Similarly, animals feed on plants to survive. Here, solar energy is synthesized and helped to produce steam by burning biomass. It is then used to rotate the turbine and generate electricity.
Wave energy: Disturbance in the ocean’s surface cause the waves to move. It further gives rise to wave energy when the wind moves continuously. The winds are produced due to the heating of the sun. The cycle results in a strong wave that can travel several kilometres with no loss of energy. The waves produce kinetic energy, converted into electricity using the Wave Energy Converter (WEC). The technology is known to drive a generator to produce energy.
Ocean thermal energy: The water’s surface absorbs the sun rays, making its upper surface warm while its lower surface remains cold. It creates a temperature difference between the upper and lower surface of the water. This difference in water temperature can generate electricity by setting up a plant at two levels or layers of water using a working fluid with a low boiling point, such as Ammonia. The fluid is transferred to the water surface before it gets vaporized. Now, the vaporized fluid is utilized to drive the turbine of the generator. Followed by this, a condenser is used to liquidize the vaporized fluid, utilizing the cold water from the lower area of the ocean.
Marine currents: The marine currents comprise of two types, including surface driven and deep ocean currents. The winds cause the upper layer of water to move in its propagation which results in surface currents. In contrast, deep ocean-driven currents are caused due to differences in density of lower and upper layers of water. The density of the water depends on various factors, including water’s temperature, saltiness, and depth. The chilled temperature and high level of salt make the water-dense. The continuous movement of the layer of water gives rise to kinetic energy, which further can be utilized as electricity.
Benefits of using Solar Energy
Cost-effectiveness: Using solar energy proves to be a cost-effective solution. Traditionally, Solar energy has been used by people to ensure fewer electricity bills and more cost-effectiveness. With a solar panel, you need not worry about paying a massive amount of electricity bill.
Low cost on maintenance: Solar energy has been used for several years due to its cost-effectiveness, longer life expectancy, and low maintenance cost; It just requires time to time cleaning and proper maintenance.
Space friendliness: Installing solar plants on the rooftop or commercial buildings does not require much space. A small area of your rooftop is sufficient for the installation of the solar plant. Moreover, having a solar plant on your rooftop increases your house vendor’s value when its sale comes.
Promotes a green environment: as time has evolved, our world has come up with several advanced technologies to perform the everyday task of our life and various service to lead a comfortable life. However, some of these advanced technologies play a significant role in damaging or harming the environment. If you are concerned about the environment, then you must go solar. Using solar energy to produce electricity helps in saving the environment.
Panchtatva and the Multifarious Renewable Energy Sources
With the world facing an energy crisis, due to the increasing population and diminishing conventional sources of energy, and an environmental crisis, we are witnessing vigorous growth in the use of renewable energy, which a lot more than what was anticipated. This ongoing shift towards a brighter future is the result of the contrast between renewable and non-renewable energy. Among all the other differences, that make both the energies poles apart, the most intriguing one is the dissimilarity in the sources of these energies. While non-renewable energy sources are formed by different processes going in nature, mostly decomposition, the renewable energy source, on the other hand, is nature itself. The processes for making non-renewable resources take millions of years which renders them almost non-replenishable. Contrarily, since renewable resources are elements of nature themselves, they can never get exhausted.
Panchtatva is a Sanskrit term, formed from two words- ‘panch’ means five, and ‘tatva’ indicates elements. When put together, the word formed means the five fundamental elements of life- fire, water, air, earth, and sky. These five elements are the building blocks of everything in nature and carry a surplus amount of energy. All renewable energies are directly related to these five elements of nature and can be divided based on their relation to them. The different types of renewable energies are- solar energy, wind energy, hydro energy, tidal energy, geothermal energy, and biomass energy. To better understand each renewable energy and its source, categorizing them under the five elements is the most straightforward way.
The first one, out of the five elements, is ‘earth’. In this context, earth refers to the land surface of our planet, on which we live and move about. The energy related to earth is geothermal energy, which is derived from geothermal sources located inside earth, mostly near the boundaries of earth’s tectonic plates. Basically, geothermal energy is the thermal energy generated and stored inside earth in form of vapor or water. It is generated from constant heat loss from earth’s formation and from radioactive decay of the materials. Hot springs are the oldest use of geothermal energy, dating back palaeolithic times, where it was used for bathing, and was later used by Romans for space heating. But, in today’s era it is mostly used for electricity generation. According to US Energy Information Administration, in 2019, there were geothermal power plants in seven states, which produced about 16 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. It is considered possible to produce up to 8.3% of the total world electricity with geothermal resources, supplying 17% of the world population. Geothermal power is cost-effective, reliable, sustainable, and environmentally friendly.
The second element is ‘water’ which serves in formation of two renewable energies hydropower and tidal energy. Hydropower or hydro energy is the power generated from the energy of fast-running or falling water, using turbines. In ancient time, hydro energy was used in irrigation and mills using waterwheels. The concept of these waterwheels became the basic idea behind the invention of turbines. In the late 19th century, people started using these turbines to generate electricity. Even today hydropower stands as the most used renewable resource for electricity generation. In 2015, hydropower generated 16.6% of the world’s total electricity and 70% of all renewable electricity.
Tidal energy is another type of energy that uses water for generating power. It is harnessed by converting energy from tides using various methods. Tides are the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun, and the rotation of the Earth. In ancient times, dating back to middle ages, tides mills were used in Europe and the Atlantic Coast of North America, where incoming tidal water was stored in large storage ponds, which used to rotate the waterwheel with the seaward flow. The process of using falling water and spinning turbines to create electricity was introduced in the U.S. and Europe in the 19th century. Since then, with the advancement of time, many methods were formed for power generation from tides, like tidal stream generator, that uses kinetic energy of the moving water to rotate turbines and generate electricity, and tidal barrage, that uses potential energy of in the difference in height between high and low tides. Sadly, the amount of energy produced worldwide using tides is low, but with technological advancement it is estimated that it will supply at least 10% of the world’s energy consumption in near future.
The third element of nature is ‘air’ and power generated using it is called wind energy. Wind energy is produced by using fast movement of the wind, which rotates windmills or wind turbines, generating energy. Although the use of wind as source of energy dates back to 5000 BC when it was used to propel boats along the Nile river, but the first electricity generating turbine was invented in 1888 in Cleveland, Ohio by Charles F. Brush which generated about 12 kilowatts of power. The world’s first wind farm, a group of wind turbines in the same location used for the production of electric power, was installed on the shoulder of Crotched Mountain in southern New Hampshire in December 1980. It consisted of 20 wind turbines, each rated at 30 kilowatts, generating 0.6 kilowatts of power. Today there are over 3,41,000 wind turbines on the planet generating great amount of energy. In 2019, wind supplied 1430 TWh of electricity, which was 5.3% of worldwide electrical generation, with the global installed wind power capacity reaching more than 651 GW.
The fourth element is ‘fire’ and the energy related to it is biomass. Although biomass itself is not related to fire, but it serves as fuel to ignite it. Biomass is any organic matter- woods, crops, seaweed, animal waste- that can be used as energy source. Biomass is probably our oldest source of energy after the sun, as people have been using wood to produce heat energy, by burning it, since stone age. Even today the largest source of biomass energy is wood and its residues. Throughout the world, biomass is the largest renewable energy source. It generated 71.4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2016, constituting 70% of the share among all renewable energy sources.
The fifth and the last element is ‘sky’ or ‘space’. This element holds the most important energy source, not only for humans but to support life throughout the planet, and this energy source is the sun. The sun is the only renewable energy source that is present everywhere and radiates abundance of energy across the globe. Solar energy can be harnessed using a range of ever evolving technologies. The earth receives 174 petawatts of incoming solar radiation out of which only 30% is reflected back while the rest is absorbed by clouds, land masses and oceans. With the invention of the first solar cell in 1883, New York, by Charles Fritz, the solar energy never ceased to exist and is thriving with modern technologies. In 2019, solar power provided 2.7% of total worldwide electricity production. Although, it is the smallest energy source in the world, but it has the fastest growth rate with most emerging technologies.
This relation of renewable energy with the nature is the main reason behind its abundance in the world. Renewable energy is clean energy deriving its powers from the five basic elements, and with fossil fuels and other non-renewable energies being on the edge of extinction, humans need to adopt these renewable energies as soon as possible to carve out a better future.
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