Enlightening Facts about Solar Energy You Should Know

Solar energy powers virtually all biological processes. Without the sun, there would be no life and no electricity from solar panels either. It’s only fitting that today we cover in detail the main facts about solar energy everyone should know.

Introduction

Throughout history, the Sun has been at the center of religious cults, an object of mystery, reverence, fascination, sometimes fear. This sphere of atomic fire has captured our imagination for ages, being associated with godhood, glory, and imposed itself as a central point that we use to define our universe — someone important has the Sun rising and setting on him, we measure other stars’ luminosity and mass relative to it, and if you don’t make hay while it shines you might miss out on your place in the Sun.

Image via ppswest

Symbols and myths tied to our golden star abound, and it’s easy to see why: all life on Earth literally, and figuratively, revolves around the Sun — including us. Mythos aside, we’ve come to a point in our capability and know-how where we can more directly, and efficiently, harness its power to keep our civilization running. And it’s a lot of energy.

The most massive single source of energy within humanity’s grasp at the moment, this star’s power output dwarfs anything and everything we’ve been able to come up with and makes our most advanced reactors look like old and leaky batteries held together by duct tape.

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Solar energy facts in a nutshell

Solar energy is an umbrella term used to refer to the light and heat a star releases. It’s renewable and for all intents and purposes an endless source of power, producing energy for billions of years to come — as estimates place the sun in the middle of its life cycle. The only true limitation of solar energy is that it cannot be used at night and the amount of sunlight that is received on earth depends on location, time of day, time of year, and weather conditions. But if you’re not convinced yet, let’s talk after you read more facts about solar energy.

sun-life-cycle

Credit: NASA

What makes solar energy great

1. It’s an insanely huge amount of power

The Earth gets an estimated 174 Petawatts (10 to the order of 15 watts) of incoming solar radiation in the upper atmosphere. About 30% is reflected back to space and the rest is absorbed by oceans, clouds and land masses, meaning our planet receives ~ 122 petawatts of energy daily.

Extreme UV and X-rays are produced (at left of wavelength range shown) but comprise very small amounts of the Sun’s total output power.
Image via wikipedia

For comparison, an average laptop uses about 10 watts of energy per hour of functioning, meaning that you could power 12,200,000,000,000,000 14-15 inch laptops for one hour each day using just the sun. That’s twelve quadrillion and two hundred trillion laptops.

I don’t think we even have that many laptops.

If solar is 20% efficient at turning solar energy into power, we’d only need to cover a land area about the size of Spain to power the entire Earth renewably in 2030. The squares in this map show how much surface area we’d need to cover with solar panel to meet the ENTIRE world’s energy needs. Credit: Land Art Generator Initiative.

2. And it’s everywhere

Probably the best thing about solar energy is that it’s completely free, as we don’t have to make any effort to produce it. The second best is that it’s also abundant and squeaky clean: wherever the sun shines, the heat and light that radiate from it can be converted into energy using proper technology, including photo-voltaic, solar heating, artificial photosynthesis, solar architecture and solar thermal electricity, even using it to boost traditional fosil-fuel plants works.

Solar panels are virtually maintenance free since their batteries require no water or other regular maintenance and will last for years. It is noise pollution free, has no moving parts and does not require any additional fuel, other than sunlight, to produce power. Once solar panels are installed, there are no recurring costs, and in some places, it’s so efficient it’s cheaper than supplying from the power grid.

During an eclipse over the Western U.S. on October 23, 2014, utility-generated solar power production plunged (1:45 p.m.-4:30 p.m.), before returning to a typical late-afternoon pattern.
However, the sheer quantity of energy produced by solar power in the Western US grid dwarfs other renewables even during the eclipse.
Image via breakingenergy

3. We’re already using it – indirectly

All life needs energy to exist. We need to eat or we die, and just as we do, the animals in our farms have to be fed. The plants that we use as fodder rely on the Sun’s light to create sugars out of inorganic compounds and water.

“We know that already!” our readers cry out, “but we could grow plants a different way, in artificial LED-lighted farms. We’d power them with fossil fuels, or wind turbines if we’re in a particularly green mood!”

Only no, we couldn’t. The plastic we would use to insulate our LED’s cables, or to build our farms and turbines, the coal we’d burn to power them, they could not exist without the Sun – they’re remnants of ancient life, transformed under the earth, but that life used solar energy to grow. Wind formation also relies heavily on the pressure imbalances caused by sunlight. The waves generated by these winds would disappear as well.

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Ultimately, almost all the energy that enters Earth’s system can be traced back to the Sun. Sure there is some radioactive decay and geothermal energy in the mix but on its own, our planet simply does not have the quantity of decaying elements or the stores of heat required to power its phenomena and the life teeming on it for so long. Without our star and the energetic imbalances it causes, the whole system would grind to a halt.

4. And in some places, we’re doing it right!

Nestled at the edge of the Mojave Desert, right by the mountains  80 miles east of Palm Springs, lies the world’s biggest solar farm. Here, the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm uses its 8 million PV cells to harness sunlight 300 days a year. While the first U.S. solar plant, built in 1982, generated 1 megawatt of electricity, Desert Sunlight generates 550 megawatts. Together with the neighboring Solar Farm – which produces roughly the same amount of power –  the two offset emissions equivalent to taking 130,000 cars off the road while providing 340,000 homes with clean energy.

The massive Desert Sunlight Solar Farm.
Image via cleantechies

5. But we should start harvesting it more

Some of the earliest industrial uses of solar power were the drying of mud bricks – that the ancient Egyptians used extensively in masonry – alongside evaporation used to obtain salt from brine. It was a very efficient way for them to make the bricks, but it was an appallingly wasteful and inefficient process from the standpoint of energy harvesting.

Sun baking bricks can be one of the oldest methods of harvesting solar power, along with evaporation.
Image via wikipedia

Modern technologies allow us to capture up to half of the sunlight’s energy that hits the solar panel, and there is a myriad of other improvements upon this technology, each with its particular benefits.

We’ve made great strides in renewable energy production, solar power included. Back in 2009, Al Gore had the right of it when he said that solving climate change with renewable energy constitutes the “single biggest business opportunity in history.” From 2010 to 2013, the amount of solar photovoltaic systems installed in the US jumped more than 485%. By 2014, the United States had more than 480,000 total solar systems installed, which produced up to 13,400 megawatts (MW). To put that into perspective, it’s enough to power nearly 2.4 million US households.

It’s not just consumers looking into solar energy facts, either. Politicians have started incorporating solar power into their “sales pitch.” The commercial world is beginning to see the light too, so to speak. Many businesses and companies have installed solar energy systems to improve their efficiency and lower their total operating costs. The installed capacity of photovoltaic systems in the US commercial sector grew from about 2,000 megawatts in 2010 to well over 6,000 megawatts in 2013.

But we’re not progressing fast enough, as most of the science community has been warning us for some time now. Though solar energy is used on a wide scale, it only provides a small fraction of the world’s energy supply. It can be adapted to a wide field of applications including electricity, evaporation, biomass, heating water and buildings and even for transport, but the large initial investment is one of the primary reasons why solar energy is still not used on a wide scale all over the world. And we may have to pay a dreadful price in the future for not phasing out greenhouse gas-emitting plants.

6. People think it’s expensive, but it’s already cheaper than the grid for 30 million Americans

Remember how at point #2 I said that solar energy can cost less overall than supplying from centralized plants? Rooftop solar is now cheaper than grid electricity for 30 million people living in 6 cities, ZME Science reported. What’s spectacular too is that solar energy was cheaper even without government subsidies, which means that it is fully competitive with conventional energy. When you also factor in the government subsidies (which may or may not last in the long term), there are 42 cities that have reached solar parity. Early results suggest that nearly 150 million Americans––33% more than a simple parity analysis reveals––will live in a city where a solar investment––without subsidies––pays back over 25 years by 2021.

It’s all the more extraordinary when you remember how expensive solar energy or solar panels, in general, were just a decade ago. Rising efficiency and increased demands have driven cost down tremendously. Solar panels may have been the reserve of the rich and eco-friendly in the past, but not anymore. Actually, if you live in an area with the right amount of sunlight (the US has plenty, for instance), you might actually lose money in the long-run. Moreover, it will only get cheaper. Forecasts say global solar demand will grow by as much as 30% in 2015 over 2014 numbers, reaching 57 GW. Who knows how cheap solar energy will become ten years from now.

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The power the Sun puts out has been enough to take this planet from a desolate wasteland, to the first amino acids, through to the earliest cells.

It shone down on the Earth as its atmosphere was being enriched with oxygen, lit the waters for the earliest fish and showed the way for their first timid steps on land. It heated the dinosaurs throughout their rise and fall, and shone on the fur of the mammals that followed.

We’ve sacrificed to it, prayed to it, made it our symbol of hope, and maybe it’s only appropriate that we now place our hope of a brighter future in its light, using all we’ve learned since we first lit a fire to make it animate.

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20 thoughts on “Enlightening Facts about Solar Energy You Should Know

  1. Brian Donovan

    Yes! Solar and wind are now available cheaper than any other sources. Before gov breaks!
    http://www.lazard.com/media/1777/levelized_cost_of_energy_-_version_80.pdf
    We need to go solar, wind, hydro, waste to energy and fuels from air,water and electricity as fast as possible.
    We are facing peak coal, oil and nuclear way sooner than we thought.

    Rooftops, parking lots and road coverings are more than enough to provide several times the peak energy, charge our electric cars, and have electricity left over for synthesizing hydrocarbons for backup in existing reserve generators, chemical feeds stocks, and long haul transportation.

    Add hydro and waste to fuels and you have a 24/7, 100% renewable and recyclable, much cheaper, cleaner, safer energy system with free infinite fuel forever.

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  5. Dr.K.SParthasarathy

    Good article. Worth keeping it for record. Solar power will have its full potential only if the issue of storing massive amounts of power is solved satisfactorily.Unfortunately the progress in that direction was not much. The type of technology development which occurred in communication should happen in the field of solar energy. We have to go along way for that.

  6. Brian

    No, storage is a red herring. Baseload need twice as much “backup” energy as solar and wind for load following and peak.

    Reserve generators already exist to fill in all gaps with solar and wind. How to you think Germany and Denmark manage 140% renewable and 80% renewable peaks?

    Can we stop with the “storage” nonsense, please?

    BTW that reserve can come from waste converted to fuels and run in the existing turbines and diesels.

  7. Dr.K.SParthasarathy

    Reference to ” lack of storage” for pro-solar and wind enthusiasts is like “lack of proper method for nuclear waste management” for nuclear protagonists!.Then the tone of discourse changes.Only climate deniers one ignore Germany’s use of brown coal to fill the gap?. There is excessive optimism about solar. In sunny India the annual plant load factor for solar assumed by energy experts is 20%. The ground reality is that it is slightly lower. Germany is shown by renewable enthusiasts as a model. Germans can afford reportedly the costliest power in the world. Interest in renewable energyworld wide is increasing.It is a good trend. Pronuclear lobby headed by the International Atomic Energy Agency claims thus: ” Four years after Fukushima, 30 countries still use nuclear power.About 11% of the world’s electricity comes from 440 operational nuclear reactors. And there are 68 more under construction, with the trend growing.” Huge cost upfront is certainly a disincentive. South Korea’s success in beating French in UAE is an interesting development. UAE has money and South Korea the technology. We do not know the ultimate economic status of nuclear power in UAE.Availability of copious amounts of natural gas controls the fate of nuclear power in USA. Climate scientists are worried that when nuclear power is replaced the trend is to use either gas or coal.Each country will choose its own path. We need all modes of power generation. India chooses that path.

  8. Brian

    Germany use of coal has gone down massively since 2001.
    http://www.renewablesinternational.net/files/smthumbnaildata/addressdetaillogo/5/1/1/9/3/3/GermanElectricity_20032014.png

    Coal CANNOT backup solar and wind because it is baseload power:inflexible. Private companies built coal for export, and Germany is a net exporter of electricity. http://www.renewablesinternational.net/german-power-exports-up-by-62-percent/150/537/68613/

    http://cleantechnica.com/2014/11/16/whats-truth-germanys-ghg-emissions/ Germans down 23% since 1990, CO2 is up 5% for the USA, and 61% for the world, yet the German renewable push has failed?

    Nuclear will be short of fuels in just ten years according to the IAEA after only 40 years or so of providing 2% of the worlds energy demand, costs 4 times available solar and wind according to Lazard, takes 12 years to install at which time solar and wind will be available for 16 times less. Each nuclear power plant generates 27 tons of deadly million years, billion dollar to store in dry casks for 100,000 years, spent fuel rod waste. Each year, each plant produces up to 2M tons of toxic mining wastes.

  9. Brian

    Germany and Denmark have average cost of electricity, and the most reliable grids on the planet, but high prices because of taxes. Wholesale price for electricity are going down in Germany as well. The USA’s grid is 1/10th as reliable and heavily subsidies by the gov. Nuclear can’t run one second without protection from liability.

    Again, no batteries or storage are needed for solar and wind. The same reserve generators that baseload needs for load following and peak work just fine for gap filling and a solar and wind system will needs less energy from reserve generators than baseload does. baseload must be sized to the minimum demand. Baseload has paid folks to take their electricity as a result, long before renewable arrived.

    We do not need all modes of energy. We must stop fossils and nuclear power ASAP. 15 years is all it will take.

  10. Brian

    Nuclear will be short of fuels in just ten years according to the IAEA after only 40 years or so of providing 2% of the worlds energy demand, costs 4 times available solar and wind according to Lazard, takes 12 years to install at which time solar and wind will be available for 16 times less. Each nuclear power plant generates 27 tons of deadly million years, billion dollar to store in dry casks for 100,000 years, spent fuel rod waste. Each year, each plant produces up to 2M tons of toxic mining wastes.

    http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub1104_scr.pdf
    “As we look to the future, presently known resources
    fall short of demand.”
    Fig 16 show the shortfall in 2025 and it going 1/4 of that 2050
    fig 20 also show shortfall.

  11. Dr.K.SParthasarathy

    Brian, Thank you very much for the elaborate answer. The fact remains that Germans have to pay the highest rates for power because of taxes or whatever reasons. But overall it appears that Germans do not mind paying more for retaining their popular policy against nuclear power. Unfortunately people in other countries may not like higher power tariff just for ideological reasons. I relied on the information given in the following article to understand the status of brown coal usage in Germany.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/researchers-alarmed-at-rise-in-german-brown-coal-power-output-a-942216.html

    I do not know which information is correct. It was also reported that the reason for other countries buying power from Germany is that the tariff for exported German power is the lowest in Europe. The point others are making is that Germany is able to make money by selling power to their neighbours as they have enough stable power generated from operating their coal-power stations. “Nuclear power” continues to remain controversial. It is true uranium resources are limited if we stick to non reprocessing route. India’s ambition is to go through the reprocessing route, develop breeder reactors and make use of the vast resources of thorium.Admittedly this is also pretty expensive. India’s first breeder reactor is scheduled for commissioning shortly.Collecting plutonium using PHWRs also is a very slow process. That is one reason India wants to import Light Water Reactors of higher capacity.There is limited progress in that direction now because of nuclear liability issues and cost considerations. At the moment the tariff of nuclear power in India: Tarapur
    Atomic Power Station Units 1&2 (TAPS 1&2) sell power at 97 paise per unit. The cost of power from the latest commissioned Kudankulam plant is Rs3.94 per unit. The average tariff of nuclear power was about Rs 2.71 paise per unit in 2013-14. As on 31.3.2014, the range of tariffs of fossil fuel based sources of electricity in the central sector varied from (Rs 1.47 to Rs13.67) per unit. Neither solar or nuclear at current levels in India is likely to influence the cost profile. These are all government administered costs.

  12. Brian

    Here’s the prices for EU electricity by country separating out the tax part. As you can see, Germany and Denmark have the highest prices but because of taxes, not cost.
    http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/File:Electricity_prices_for_household_consumers,_second_half_2014_(%C2%B9)_(EUR_per_kWh)_YB15.png

    Many people have serious problems understanding the difference between cost and price. They think you can use price as a proxy for cost. You cannot.

    Solar and wind are avaible at lower cost than fossils and nuclear. Fact. Price vary all over the place, and have little to do with cost.

    Notice that when people lose the argument on solar and iwnd needing only the same reserve tech that baseload nuclear and coal need, they move on without acknowledging it.

    The Germans sell peak solar not baseload.
    Germany typically exports when solar is peak, creating a surplus and buy in the evening when French nuclear has spare capacity cheap because they hate to throttle.
    I show that Germany cut coal use and nuclear by the a massive amount that is about equal to the increase in renewables. New privately built coal with absurd anti renewable gov breaks is still less than the increase in exports. Ie, coal is not needed, was not needed, and has nothing to do with the success of renewables, it is backlash by the coal companies, that’s it.

    People think countries generate power for themselves. Not in the EU. Germany buy French nuclear to sell to other countries. and other fascinating complexity of their mostly privately own electricity market. http://www.renewablesinternational.net/update-german-power-exports-less-valuable-than-imports-in-2015/150/537/93679/

    So Anti renewables fossils and nuclear folks can make almost any argument they want by cherry picking the data.

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