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Engineering LibreTexts

5.2: Solar Energy

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  • Solar energy is the ultimate energy source driving life on earth and many human activities. Though only one billionth of the energy that leaves the sun (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) actually reaches the earth's surface, this is more than enough to meet the world’s energy requirement. In fact, all other sources of energy, renewable and non-renewable, are actually stored forms of solar energy. The process of directly converting solar energy to heat or electricity is considered a renewable energy source. Solar energy represents an essentially unlimited supply of energy as the sun will long outlast human civilization on earth. The difficulties lie in harnessing the energy. Solar energy has been used for centuries to heat homes and water, and modern technology (photovoltaic cells) has provided a way to produce electricity from sunlight. There are two basic forms of solar energy collectors are passive and active.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): a) Mars Observer in Mars Orbit showing the solar panel. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons,). b) The Sun photographed at 304 angstroms by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA 304) of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). This is a false-color image of the Sun observed in the extreme ultraviolet region of the spectrum., NASA/SDO (AIA)

    5.2.1: Passive and Active Solar Energy

    Passive solar energy uses heating and cooling strategies that have been used historically such as natural ventilation, solar heat gain, solar shading and efficient insulation. Passive solar space heating happens when the sun shines through the windows of a building and warms the interior (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Building designs that optimize passive solar heating usually have south facing windows that allow the sun to shine on solar heat-absorbing walls or floors during the winter. The solar energy heats the building by natural radiation and convection and the heat is trapped, absorbed and stored by materials with high thermal mass (usually bricks or concrete) inside the house. The heat is released at night when needed to warm up the building as it loses heat to the cooler outdoors. Window overhangs or shades block the sun from entering the windows during the summer to keep the building cool.

    Active solar energy systems require the input of some energy to pump a heat-absorbing fluid medium through a collector to store and distribute the energy. Fans or pumps circulate air or heat-absorbing liquids through collectors and then transfer the heated fluid directly to a room or to a heat storage system. The solar collectors are either concentrating or non-concentrating. In the non-concentrating collectors, the surface area that intercepts the solar radiation is the same as the area absorbing the radiation. Flat-plate collectors are the most common type of nonconcentrating collectors and are used when temperatures lower than 200°F are sufficient. The collectors absorb and transfer heat to a fluid (water or air) which is then circulated to provide heating to a building. In concentrating collectors the surface area intercepting the solar radiation is greater, sometimes hundreds of times greater, than the absorber area. The collector focuses or concentrates solar energy onto an absorber. The collector usually moves so that it maintains a high degree of concentration on the absorber.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Passive solar building near Crestone, Colorado (image from Wiki Commons)

    Photovoltaic (PV) Cells

    Solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, or solar cells, change sunlight directly into electricity. PV uses semiconducting materials such as silicon to produce electricity from sunlight: when light hits the cells, the material produces free electrons that migrate across the cell, creating an electric current. Small PV cells can power calculators, watches, and other small electronic devices. Arrangements of many solar cells in PV panels and arrangements of multiple PV panels in PV arrays can produce electricity for an entire house (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)a). Some PV power plants have large arrays that cover many acres to produce electricity for thousands of homes.

    Hundreds of thousands of houses and buildings around the world have PV systems on their roofs. Many multi-megawatt PV power plants have also been built. Covering 4% of the world's desert areas with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world's electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world's total electricity demand.

    Solar Thermal Power Plants

    Solar thermal power plants, like the one in Figure\(\PageIndex{3}\)b use concentrating solar collector systems to collect and concentrate sunlight to produce the high temperature heat needed to generate electricity. All solar thermal power systems have solar energy collectors with two main components: reflectors (mirrors) that capture and focus sunlight onto a receiver. In most types of systems, a heat-transfer fluid is heated and circulated in the receiver and used to produce steam. The steam is converted into mechanical energy in a turbine, which powers a generator to produce electricity. Solar thermal power systems have tracking systems that keep sunlight focused onto the receiver throughout the day as the sun changes position in the sky.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): a) Rooftop Solar Installations on Douglas Hall at the University of Illinois at Chicago has no effect on land resources, while producing electricity with zero emissions. Source: Office of Sustainability. b) Solucar PS10 solar power tower in Andalusia, Spain, is a solar thermal power plant that generates electricity commercially. (Photo by Afloresm Solucar PS10 CC BY 2.0)

    5.2.3: Environmental Impacts of solar energy

    Solar power has minimal impact on the environment, depending on where it is placed. In 2009, one percent of the renewable energy generated in the United States was from solar power (1646 MW) out of the eight percent of the total electricity generation that was from renewable sources. The manufacturing of photovoltaic (PV) cells generates some hazardous waste from the chemicals and solvents used in processing. Often solar arrays are placed on roofs of buildings or over parking lots or integrated into construction in other ways. However, large systems may be placed on land and particularly in deserts where those fragile ecosystems could be damaged if care is not taken. Some solar thermal systems use potentially hazardous fluids (to transfer heat) that require proper handling and disposal. Concentrated solar systems may need to be cleaned regularly with water, which is also needed for cooling the turbine-generator. Using water from underground wells may affect the ecosystem in some arid locations.