Believe it or not, there is in fact quite a few different types of solar energy.
When you think about solar energy in general, the mind is usually drawn towards the thought of photovoltaic panels right?
This article aims to cover all those different types and spread the wonders of solar energy as a green investment into your future.
You might just be surprised of all the ways you could implement solar energy in to your life.
What is Solar Energy?
- In simple terms, solar energy is the light and heat that comes from the sun.
Interestingly, only about one one-billionth of the sun’s total energy output reaches our Earth.
Of the solar energy that does reach our earth, 66% is reflected back out to space by the earth itself.
When scientist discuss energy, they usually refer to the Laws of Thermodynamics.
The first law states, that energy can neither be created or destroyed. The Second law states that energy can be converted from high quality to low quality.
- High quality = Able to perform large amounts of work
- Low quality = Able to perform less amounts of work
The amount of energy lost in the form of heat is often about 90%.
Knowing this, will come in handy later when we discuss all the different types of solar energy.
Types of Solar Energy
One of the more common examples of solar energy and best ways to utilize the sun’s energy is with photovoltaic systems, also known as solar cell systems.
These systems transform solar energy into electricity.
Read our guide: How do solar panels work?
The winning ingredient inside solar cell systems is the silicon, this material has conductive properties that allow the element to convert sunlight into electricity.
When sunlight interacts with the silicon cell, it forces the electrons inside it to move, this movement then initiates a flow of electricity.
This whole process is known as the photovoltaic effect (‘photon – light, ‘Voltaic’ – electricity).
A fully functional photovoltaic home set up would include the following:
- Solar Panels: These are often connected in an array to provide higher overall power outputs/DC voltages.
- Solar storage batteries: The electricity generated by your solar panels is stored here.
- Charge controller: These devices prevent overcharging which could compromise your storage batteries health.
- DC – AC inverter: Solar panels produce DC (direct current), most appliances utilize AC (alternating current). An inverter is used to convert DC power to AC power which we can then use in our homes or campervans.
Solar Water Heating Systems
Another type of solar energy is solar hot water, which as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, entails the heating up of water using the sun’s heat.
In many climates solar water heating is responsible for up to 85% of domestic hot water supply.
The concept of solar water heating comes directly from nature herself. Ever noticed how shallow pools of water seem to be much warmer than deeper ones?
This is because the sunlight can reach the bottom of the lake or seashore and heat it up, which in turn, heats the water up.
We’ve created solar water heating systems which mimic the genius of nature.
These systems are comprised of two parts: The solar collector and the storage tank.
The most common collector is called a flat-plate collector. It’s mounted onto your homes roof and is angled to face the sun.
There are many small tubes which run through the plate and carry the fluid.
As the collector begins to heat up it warms the fluid passing through its tubes. This warm water then gets stored in the storage tank, ready to be used.
Solar Power Plants
The third way we can utilize the different types of solar energy is with solar electricity.
As I am sure many of you are well aware, most power plants today use unsustainable forms of energy such as fossil fuels to boil water.
This boiling water creates high pressured steam which rotates large turbines, which in turn activates the generator that then produces electricity.
This conventional way of generating electricity is toxic to our health and is largely responsible for global warming.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The good news is that new forms of power plants that rely solely solar power, are being introduced.
These power plants use the sun as a heat source and can do so in three different ways:
- Parabolic-trough systems capture the sun’s energy via long rectangular, curved mirrors that are angled towards the sun. This enables sunlight to focus its super rays onto a pipe that contains oil. This oil is extreme heated and then used to boil water in a conventional steam generator to produce electricity.
- A dish/engine system uses large, mirrored dish which resembles your household satellite dish (except 1000 times bigger). This dish concentrates the sun’s heat onto a receiver. This receiver absorbs the heat and transfers it to the fluid within an engine. Heat causes this fluid to expand which then pushes against a piston or turbine and produces mechanical power. This mechanical power is then used to run a generator or alternator to generate electricity.
- Power tower systems use large fields of mirrors that concentrate the sun’s sunlight onto the top of the tower. On top of the tower there is a receiver containing molten salt. The salts heat can be used to generate electricity through a conventional steam generator (minus all the pollution). Molten salt is really effective at retaining heat efficiently and can be stored for days until it needs to be converted into electricity. This means electricity can still be produced on cloudy days or even during the night.
Passive Solar Heating
Another different type of solar energy takes the form of passive solar heating. Indeed, you would be mistaken to think this is new concept.
Infact, ancient civilizations such as the Anasazi Indians used passive solar heating in their household designs.
The impact the sun’s energy has on our planet is quite easy to understand.
If it’s a hot sunny day where you live, take a break from your computer, go outside and just stand in the sun for a moment.
Back? Ok what did you feel, heat right?
Well, with proper design, many buildings can also “feel” the sun’s energy.
Buildings for example can install materials such as sunlit floors and walls that will actively absorb and store the sun’s heat.
These materials heat up during the day, and at a slow pace release the heat during the colder nights.
Other home design includes features such as a sunspace, these “spaces” resemble greenhouses, which concentrate a lot of heat. With the right ventilation, an entire space can be warmed up.
These different types of features maximize the sun’s energy.
Interestingly, on particularly hot day’s you’d imagine these designs to overheat entire buildings, right?
Wrong! In fact, there are ways to ensure these features do not overheat households.
How is solar energy classified?
Solar energy is classified as a renewable energy source. A renewable energy source is any source of energy that can replenish itself naturally, on a human timescale.
Energy sources like coal are considered nonrenewable due to the fact it takes them over a hundred thousand years to reform.
This makes them unable to replenish at the rate at which humans use them today.
Solar energy is therefore classified as a renewable energy source that will never run out or be in short supply (at least in a human’s lifetime).
All we need to do is continue developing different types of solar energy to capture it!