If you think solar power is just for the super-eco-minded or people living so rurally they're off the grid, it's time to update your sun smarts. We're shining a light on this abundant, clean and healthily tax-incentivized power source. Learn what makes solar power an increasingly hot choice for many households.
The most common type of solar panels are photovoltaic (or "PV") panels. Photovoltaic panels absorb light particles, called photons, from the sun. These particles then flow through the semiconductive materials in the panels, creating an electrical current. If it all sounds very complicated, don't worry: It's really a very reliable system.
"One of the great things about PV panels is they are a solid-state technology, which means there are no moving parts," says Ric Evans, principal manager at Paradigm Energy Services in Ellsworth, Mich. Evans says one of the major benefits of a solid-state technology like this is that there are no moving parts to malfunction or break. "The first solar cell was made over 100 years ago, and it's still producing power today."
But PV panels aren't the only player in the solar-collecting game. Solar thermal collectors are another option. These collectors do just what their name indicates: They collect heat by absorbing sunlight. In residential applications, these types of collectors are most often used in conjunction with hot water heaters. In larger, more complex operations, the solar thermal collector's heated water may be used to produce steam; the steam then powers a turbine that runs electrical generators.
Solar thermal panels are generally less expensive, but they're also more difficult to use, since they have to move to track the sun. They also don't work as well on overcast days as PV panels, which are better able to collect diffused light.
To make the current that juices our coffeemakers, computers and HVAC units, the power created at a solar panel has to run through a device called an inverter. Inverters take the direct current (DC) produced by solar panels and convert it into the alternating current (AC) that flows from your home's outlets.
Perry Cadman, president of New Town Builders a Denver-based homebuilder that outfits many of its homes with solar technologies, says while using a single inverter with an array of panels is a common design, he prefers panels that each have their own individual micro-inverters. "During the day, one or two of the panels may end up shaded," he says. "With traditional systems that have one inverter, the whole system's output will drop down to the level of the shaded panels. With individual inverters, that doesn't happen."
Today most people associate solar power with photovoltaic panels. But that wasn't always the way the sun powered households.
Photovoltaic panels are an "active solar" technology but so is any type of solar collector that uses fans, pumps or any electrical and/or mechanical equipment to increase efficiency or output. Active solar technology encompasses thermal collectors that use water-circulating pumps, as well as solar collection methods that require mechanical tilting to optimize exposure.
Passive solar technologies, on the other hand, are the most traditional method of using the sun to a household's advantage. Before the convenience of heating and air conditioning, most homes were designed to minimize summer sun heat while maximizing winter sun exposure. But even if your home doesn't soak up the sun in the smartest way, you can still use passive solar technology to boost your house's efficiency. Strategically placed vents that optimize air movement or energy-smart windows that minimize or maximize heat transfer depending on your climate are just a couple of examples of ways people use passive solar technology to increase their home's comfort levels.
Direct solar energy comes from solar panels and other similar devices that take the rays from the sun and convert them directly into useable energy. Indirect solar energy, on the other hand, has a more complex relationship between the sun and the eventual energy source. For example, a campfire would be an example of indirect solar energy. How? Because the sun provides the energy source for the plants and trees to grow (via photosynthesis). When you take fallen branches and dry grasses to create a fire, you're using sun-powered material to create your heat source, and that is a form of indirect solar energy.
Here are a few other bright ideas to keep in mind when you're looking into solar power:
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