How Solar Energy Works and Its Environmental Benefits
Here's your guide to how solar energy works, how it compares to fossil fuels, and the environmental benefits you should know about.
When we think of the sun, we often picture warmth and summer days. We look forward to sunshine, as the exposure lifts our spirits and feeds the life living on our planet. And beyond providing organisms with energy to function properly, the sun has now become a powerful source of energy that powers our homes, offices, and other industries.
The use of solar energy has gained momentum in recent years, especially when we talk about sustainability. Since the mid-2000s, solar has increased by 33% each year. In many ways, the growing consciousness of human impact on the planet has fueled a switch to solar power in various industry sectors, in people's homes, and even in apartment complexes.
By harnessing the power of a renewable resource like the sun to generate electricity, we reduce our impact on the environment. So, how exactly does solar energy work, and how does it compare to common nonrenewable energy sources like fossil fuels? Here are the answers to all your questions about solar energy.
The Current State of Power Generation and Supply in Our World
When you picture advanced living in private homes or a nation at large, adequate power supply often makes it to the top of the list. Electrical power generation is an important prerequisite for growth and development. Without a doubt, various sectors require power to function properly. From agriculture to manufacturing industries, energy is necessary for development.
Plus, we need electricity within our homes to enjoy a comfortable standard of living. It heats and cools our homes, provides light, charges our devices, and powers WiFi, connecting us to the rest of the world.
To obtain power or electricity supply, many homes and industries largely rely on public power plants. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), three-quarters of homes in the U.S. use at least two energy sources. In this light, the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity become a resource-intensive process. For any nation to ensure its power independence, it requires a standard power industry.
However, the way we generate electricity is largely divided into two: nonrenewable and renewable resources.
On one hand, we use nonrenewable resources like coal, natural gas, and oil. As the name suggests, nonrenewable resources are those natural sources that once used up, cannot be replaced. They are limited in supply and are therefore finite resources. Although the planet can replenish them, we can’t get them back at the speed at which we consume them.
Coal, oil, and natural gas are known as fossil fuels—and civilization heavily depends on these resources. Many nations use them as a primary source of energy. Apart from electricity generation, we also use nonrenewable resources as fuel for vehicles and heating systems. Every year, about 80% of the total energy we use globally comes from fossil fuels, according to National Geographic.
Since we largely depend on these resources in our various societies, it’s only a matter of time before they get depleted. Apart from that, the process of transforming these resources into useful power is energy-intensive.
On the other hand, renewable resources are those natural sources that the planet constantly replenishes. And these renewable resources include solar, wind, biomass, and hydro energy.
As we become more environmentally conscious, renewable resources are being highlighted. One of such is solar energy; that is, utilizing the light and heat from the sun for power purposes. It’s a relatively modern renewable energy source; however, its use is quickly growing globally.
In the U.S. alone, the utility-scale solar electricity generating capacity rose from about 314,000 KW in 1990 to about 48 million KW at the end of 2020. Now, let’s dive into how solar energy really works.
How Solar Energy Works
Solar energy converts the sun’s energy into power, so it's a resource that's infinitely available. As long as the sun continues to shine, this source of energy will continue to exist.
There are two popular ways in which we can convert the sun’s light and heat into electricity or power. The first is by using photovoltaic (PV) panels. The second is through concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP). These solar technologies capture solar radiation and convert it into useful energy forms.
Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panels
You’ve probably come across solar panels spread across the roofs of houses or offices—or maybe, you have solar panels on your home's roof. These are PV panels. PV solar panels directly use sunlight to produce electricity.
The panels contain PV cells that absorb energy from sunlight once it shines onto the panels. This process loosens the electrons in the cells and creates a current that’s transferred into wires. This then generates a direct electric current that’s converted to an alternating current. Afterward, it is distributed onto a power network.
Concentrated Solar-Thermal Power (CSP)
Unlike PV panels that use sunlight, CSP uses mirrors that concentrate sunlight onto receivers, converting the sunlight into heat—or thermal energy. This heat then produces electricity. According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, this heat can be used for "water desalination, enhanced oil recovery, food processing, chemical production, and mineral processing."
However, in some cases, the heat is stored for later use. PV solar panels are more widespread and many homes and offices use them. CSP, on the other hand, is mostly used in large power plants.
Now that we’ve gotten those technicalities out of the way, let’s dive into how solar energy differs from nonrenewable energy sources.
Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels
With growing awareness about climate change, nations and communities are now embracing sustainable energy sources. Although we still have some way to go when it comes to relying on renewable sources, we can’t help but recognize the growing shifts.
Did you know that solar energy is the world's most abundant energy resource? Studies uncover that 173,000 terawatts of sunlight-based energy continuously strike the earth, which is over 10,000 times the world's total energy use.
This abundant source is the future of our world in terms of power generation. However, it’s worth examining how solar energy differs from the current sources we still rely on—fossil fuels.
As previously stated, as long as the sun shines, we won’t run out of solar energy to power homes and offices. Unlike sun-based energy, fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—are nonrenewable. As a result, if we use them up, the planet can’t readily replace them at a rate as quick as consumption rates. This raises the question of overconsumption of natural resources and how we can curb this practice.
Enter renewable resources or renewable energy sources like the sun. Solar energy is an effective energy solution to growing concerns around using up nonrenewable resources. Although sunlight hits different parts of the planet in varying degrees, the fact remains that it still shines—and it still provides energy. This helps us protect and preserve our natural resources, especially those that can’t replenish quickly.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Greenhouse gas emissions are another area to consider when examining energy supply methods. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere—both of which are harmful gases that contribute to global warming through the greenhouse effect.
And global warming impacts the Earth's climate system, heating it up and increasing the impacts of climate change. Unlike these fuels, solar energy is one of the least carbon-intensive means of generating electricity.
While solar energy still has an environmental footprint, it's much smaller than that of nonrenewable sources. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the lifecycle carbon emissions of PV panels is at 40 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh. Meanwhile, coal power plants emit around 1,000 grams of CO2-equivalent emissions per kWh.
When it comes to the cost, many people are skeptical about switching to solar energy because it was previously known to be more expensive. In some cases, it's considered a major investment. However, studies show that the cost of installing solar panels has been dropping since 2009 by about 13% to 18% per year. This decrease in cost is largely due to technological innovations and advancements.
On the other hand, as we continue to use up nonrenewables like fossil fuels, their prices continue to rise globally. Although solar energy is not yet the most accessible in terms of monetary costs, researchers continue to study its cost decline. This trend is expected to continue, thus giving more people access to solar energy.
Environmental Benefits of Solar Energy
1. Solar Energy Fights Climate Change
Switching to solar energy is one of the key sustainable steps we can take to tackle climate change and its negative effects. With its minimal carbon footprint, solar energy is a key step towards prioritizing clean energy and decreasing carbon emissions.
2. It Reduces the Need for Nonrenewable Energy
Solar energy also helps us reduce our reliance on nonrenewable energy resources worldwide. As we utilize energy from the sun, we can begin to preserve our planet’s natural sources. This enhances deep reverence for the environment and also ensures that these resources continue to serve generations to come.
3. It Reduces Water Usage and Pollution
Water pollution is one of the world’s key environmental challenges. Traditional methods such as coal-fired facilities often require large amounts of water for their cooling processes. Due to the amount of heating required to convert these natural sources to power, facilities need cooling systems in place. Thus, facilities use a significant amount of energy and then dump tons of toxic chemicals and metals into waterways.
However, solar energy doesn’t require water to generate electricity. This leads to a lower water footprint and less water pollution. In this light, solar energy can serve as one of the solutions to water scarcity and pollution challenges.
Choosing a Clean and Green Way to Generate Energy
Going solar means switching to a green energy source. Many homes and offices are investing in it. It provides energy independence and serves as a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint—or even the carbon footprints of major industries. Since the sun provides us with more energy than we require, we can tap into its supply.
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