Is Solar Energy Easy To Harness?

Solar energy is the radiant light and heat from the sun that is harnessed using a range of ever-evolving technologies such as solar heating, photovoltaics, and solar thermal energy. Understanding solar energy is important as we search for clean, renewable energy sources to power our homes, businesses, and lives. As concerns grow over issues like climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, solar power offers a promising solution by enabling homes and buildings to generate their own emissions-free electricity from an abundant, inexhaustible fuel source. This article will examine how easy or challenging it is to harness the sun’s energy for everyday use.

How Solar Energy Works

Solar energy is harnessed through two main technologies: photovoltaics and solar thermal systems.

Photovoltaic solar panels work through the photovoltaic effect, in which photons from sunlight knock electrons free from atoms, generating a flow of electricity. Solar cells made of semiconductor materials like silicon capture the photons and release the electrons. The cells are wired together to form solar panels, which can be installed on rooftops or ground mounts to generate electricity. No mechanical or thermal process is needed, just exposure to sunlight.

Solar thermal systems use the sun’s heat rather than its light. Solar thermal collectors, often mounted on rooftops, absorb heat from the sun and transfer it to a fluid like water or antifreeze to create hot water or steam. The heated fluid is used for purposes like heating swimming pools, buildings, or even generating electricity if steam is created.

Abundance of Solar Energy

The amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface is enormous. The sun bombards the Earth with approximately 1,368 watts per square meter of energy on a constant basis. To put this into perspective, the total global energy consumption in 2018 was about 158,000 terawatt hours or 18 terawatts of continuous power. That means the sun provides more than 6,500 times more energy to the Earth’s surface than the entire world currently uses. Even when considering that only a portion of the Earth’s surface receives consistent sunlight, and accounting for nighttime hours and cloudy days, there is vastly more solar energy available than humanity needs. Effectively harnessing just a tiny fraction of this abundant resource could meet all of our energy needs.

Efficiency of Solar Panels

Solar panel efficiency refers to the percentage of sunlight that hits the panels and is converted into usable electricity. Most residential solar panels today have efficiencies ranging from 15% to 22%. High-end commercial panels may reach over 22% efficiency. This efficiency rating is determined through lab testing under optimal sunlight conditions.

Solar panel technology has improved significantly over the past 10 years. Early solar panels only had efficiencies of 5% to 10%. Advancements in materials and manufacturing have enabled steady increases in efficiency. For example, by using multi-layer solar cells and lenses to minimize reflected light, more electrons can be captured from each photon. Efficiency gains also come from improved ability to absorb light across the solar spectrum.

Higher efficiency solar panels can generate more electricity in the same amount of space. However, they tend to cost more per watt. So installers must balance efficiency vs. system size and cost when designing solar systems. Even panels with only 15% efficiency produce abundant clean power. With solar costs dropping, mid-range efficiency panels around 18% have become a common choice for residential installations.

Installation Considerations

Installing a solar panel system requires careful planning and preparation. The positioning and angle of the solar panels is critical for maximizing energy production. In the northern hemisphere, solar panels should face south, and in the southern hemisphere, they should face north. The optimal tilt angle for fixed solar panels equals your latitude. However, adjustments may be needed based on average sun exposure and shading from trees and buildings throughout the year. Tracking mounts that follow the sun’s path across the sky can further boost energy capture but add cost and maintenance needs.

installing solar panels requires careful planning and optimal positioning.

Beyond optimal solar orientation, there are electrical and structural considerations. Solar panels can be roof-mounted, ground-mounted, or pole-mounted, each option with its own requirements. Electrical connections, wiring, and inverters to convert DC to AC power also need to be set up properly. Grid-tied systems will need approval from the utility company.

Permitting and inspections are necessary when installing solar panels. Building permits are typically required for roof-mounted systems to ensure the roof’s structure can support the additional weight. Homeowners associations and local zoning offices may have restrictions on solar installations, so checking ordinances in your area is advised. Qualified solar installers will handle permitting and comply with all regulations during the installation process.

Cost of Solar Panels

The cost of installing a solar panel system has dropped dramatically in the past decade. In 2010, the average cost of a residential solar system was over $7 per watt. Today, costs have fallen to around $2.70 per watt on average.

For a typical 5 kilowatt residential system, total installation costs now range from $10,000 to $25,000 depending on factors like your location and the difficulty of the roof setup. Homeowners can often finance a solar system through a loan or PPA (power purchase agreement) and make low monthly payments that are less than their previous electricity bills.

Compared to fossil fuel energy sources, solar power is now often the cheaper long-term energy investment for homeowners. While coal and natural gas prices fluctuate, the 20+ year lifespan of solar panels provides certainty about electricity costs. And with no fuel costs, the sun provides free power once the system is paid off.

Maintenance Requirements

Solar panels require little maintenance, but regular cleaning is important to maintain their efficiency. Dust, dirt, pollen, and other debris can build up on the panels, blocking sunlight. It’s recommended to clean solar panels at least a couple times per year. More frequent cleaning may be needed in areas with lots of dust or pollen.

Use a soft brush and plain water to gently clean the panels. Don’t use abrasive or chemical cleaners. Hire a professional solar panel cleaner if your roof is difficult to access safely. Some solar companies offer cleaning services.

The inverters that convert direct current from the solar panels into alternating current for your home also require occasional maintenance. Inverters are expected to last 10-15 years. Older inverters become less efficient. Have your solar installer check the inverter annually and replace it if needed to maintain optimal system performance.

Energy Storage Needs

One of the main challenges with solar energy is that it is an intermittent source of electricity. The sun does not shine 24/7, so solar panels only produce electricity when the sun is out. This means solar power needs to be paired with energy storage solutions to provide power when sunlight is unavailable.

Battery storage is the most common solution to store solar energy for use when the sun isn’t shining. Lithium-ion batteries are the dominant technology used in home solar battery storage systems today. These battery packs store excess solar electricity produced during the daytime for use at night. Many solar panel installation companies offer battery storage add-ons to enable solar homes to tap into solar energy around the clock.

Batteries allow solar panel owners to store solar energy for backup power in the case of grid outages. They also optimize self-consumption of solar energy and reduce reliance on the grid. While batteries do add substantial cost to a solar system, prices are coming down as technology improves. Government incentives can help offset the upfront investment in batteries.

Government Incentives

Installing solar panels can be expensive upfront, but federal, state, and local governments offer various incentives to make going solar more affordable for homeowners, businesses, and nonprofits. One of the most substantial incentives is the federal solar tax credit, also known as the investment tax credit (ITC). This provides a 26% tax credit for systems installed in 2020-2022, 22% for systems installed in 2023, and 0% for systems installed after 2023.

Many states also offer additional tax credits, rebates, or other incentives on top of the federal ITC. For example, New York offers a 25% tax credit up to $5,000. California has a declining block rebate program that provides upfront incentives. Local utilities or municipalities may also have special solar incentives or rebate programs as well. It’s important to research what solar incentives are available for your specific location.


In reviewing the ease of harnessing solar energy, it’s clear there are many factors to consider. While solar energy itself is abundant and free, capturing and converting it into usable electricity requires investment in equipment like solar panels and inverters. Installing these systems also takes planning and labor. However, technological improvements continue to drive down costs and increase efficiency. With proper siting, permits, installation, maintenance and realistic expectations, solar energy can be an accessible renewable energy source for many homeowners and businesses.

Looking ahead, the future is bright for wider adoption of solar energy. Costs are projected to decrease further as production scales, and new breakthroughs could improve efficiency. Supportive government policies will also play a key role in incentivizing installations. The modular nature of solar panels allows capacity to be added gradually over time. While solar energy on its own may have challenges with intermittency, improving storage technology can help smooth out supply. With sufficient investment and supportive policies, solar energy has the potential to become a major pillar of a clean electricity system.

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