What Are Fun Facts About Solar Energy?

History of Solar Energy

What are fun facts about solar energy?

People have harnessed solar energy for thousands of years. Some of the earliest uses of solar energy date back to 7th century BC, when people started using basic magnifying glasses to focus the sun’s rays for fire.[1] Ancient Greek and Chinese civilizations designed their buildings to passively absorb sunlight for heating. Solar water heaters have been used since the late 1800s.[2]

In the 1860s, Auguste Mouchout developed a crude parabolic trough solar steam engine in France. By the start of the 20th century, solar water heating had become relatively commonplace. One of the earliest and largest examples of solar water heating was installed on a hotel in Pasadena, California in 1909.[3]

Frank Shuman built the first large-scale solar power station in Egypt in 1913. It used parabolic troughs to power a 35-hp steam engine.[1]

Through the first half of the 20th century, solar thermal energy was the predominant form of solar power. However, photovoltaic solar panels were developed in the 1950s, providing an alternative method of harnessing solar energy.[2]

[1] https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/renewable/solar/history-of-solar-power/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power

[3] https://www.nrel.gov/news/video/solar-energy-basics-text.html

Solar Energy Basics

Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. When sunlight hits the solar cells inside a panel, it knocks electrons loose from the atoms in the cells. The electrons then flow through the cell, producing electricity. The photovoltaic effect was first discovered in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel (1).

Solar cells are made of semiconductor materials like silicon that are specially treated to form an electric field. The most common type is a p-n junction cell made of crystalline silicon. At the junction of the p-type and n-type silicon, free electrons can move from the n-side to the p-side, generating electricity (2).

Solar panels are wired together in modules and arrays to produce higher voltages and currents. The electricity generated can then be fed directly into the electrical grid or used to charge batteries to store the energy for later use. Modern solar panels typically have a conversion efficiency around 15% to 20% (3).

Sources:

(1) https://www.livescience.com/41995-how-do-solar-panels-work.html

(2) https://www.livescience.com/41995-how-do-solar-panels-work.html

(3) https://www.livescience.com/41995-how-do-solar-panels-work.html

Solar Energy Capacity

Global installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity has seen tremendous growth over the past decade. According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), total global solar PV capacity reached over 627 gigawatts (GW) by the end of 2019, up from just 40 GW in 2010.

By the end of 2020, global solar PV capacity grew to 760 GW, an increase of 21% from the previous year, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) [1]. This growth was driven by large deployments of utility-scale solar projects as costs continued to decline.

China continued to lead in total installed solar PV capacity, followed by the United States, Japan, Germany and India. The top 5 countries accounted for nearly 70% of global capacity. While growth in Europe and the US remained steady, much of the capacity growth in 2020 came from emerging markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

With solar energy becoming increasingly cost competitive with fossil fuels, global solar PV capacity is forecast to grow exponentially in the coming decades. According to projections from the IEA, total global solar PV capacity could reach over 4,500 GW by 2040 under stated policies scenarios, meeting over 5% of global electricity demand.

Top Countries for Solar

China has by far the most solar power capacity installed, with over 205 gigawatts as of 2020 according to Nation Master. The United States ranks second with around 62 gigawatts of solar capacity. Other top countries include Japan, Germany, India, Italy, Australia, Spain, and South Korea. China’s massive investment in solar energy in recent years has allowed it to pull far ahead of other nations. The country added nearly 50 gigawatts of new solar capacity in 2020 alone. With abundant land and sun exposure, favorable policies, and low-cost manufacturing, China is poised to continue rapidly expanding its solar energy production.

Notable Solar Installations

California has many of the largest solar farms in the United States. At 325 MW, the Aquamarine solar installation in Lemore is one of the biggest in the state. Completed in 2021, this large-scale photovoltaic project can generate enough electricity to power over 132,000 homes. The 550 MW Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Riverside County is also among the largest solar farms in California and the world. Built by First Solar, this massive installation came online in 2015.

The 40 MW American Falls Solar installation in Idaho is one of the state’s biggest solar projects. Completed in 2017, this utility-scale photovoltaic plant has the electric capacity to power over 13,000 homes. In North Carolina, the 104 MW Moyock Solar Facility is currently the state’s largest solar installation. Built by Pine Gate Renewables, this farm opened in 2020 and sells electricity to Amazon.

The 620 MW Gemini Solar Project under construction in Nevada will be one of the biggest in the country upon completion in 2023. Located north of Las Vegas, this $1 billion solar installation by Arevia Power will have a capacity of 690 MW and include 1.8 million solar panels across 7,100 acres.

Solar Energy Efficiency

Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. The efficiency of this conversion process depends on the solar cell materials and technologies used. Most residential solar panels on the market today have efficiencies between 15-22%. The most efficient commercially available solar panels can reach over 22% efficiency.

According to Enel X, the average efficiency of solar panels falls between 15% and 20%. Higher efficiency ratings indicate more of the sun’s energy is converted into usable electricity. For example, a 250W solar panel with 18% efficiency will produce 250W of power with 18% less sunlight than a 250W panel with 22% efficiency.1

Factors like panel temperature, light intensity, and angle of light affect real-world solar efficiency. Well-designed solar systems account for these variables to optimize efficiency. Overall, modern solar panels are highly effective at turning sunlight into clean, renewable energy.

Solar Energy Storage

Solar energy storage refers to the capture and retention of energy from the sun so that it can be utilized when solar radiation is not available. There are several ways to store solar energy for later use:

Battery storage is one of the most common methods. Excess energy generated from solar panels can be stored in batteries like lead-acid or lithium-ion. These batteries store the energy chemically in the form of direct current electricity. Batteries provide a flexible and cost-effective storage solution for solar power systems.

Thermal storage involves heating up a material or medium using excess thermal energy from the sun. The heat is then retained and can be utilized later for heating applications. Some thermal storage solutions are molten salt, water tanks, and phase change materials like paraffin wax.

Mechanical storage converts excess solar energy into the motion of a mass that possesses kinetic energy. Pumped hydro and compressed air energy storage are two examples of mechanical solar storage. These approaches utilize gravity or air pressure differentials to store energy.

Solar energy storage allows the utilization of renewable solar power even when the sun is not actively shining. It is a key enabling technology for transitioning to sustainable energy systems.[1][2]

Solar Energy Costs

The cost of solar power has declined dramatically over the past decade. According to a report by Grand View Research, the average price of a solar PV module decreased by around 80% from 2010 to 2019 (An interview with Dr. Markus Fischer on the declining costs of solar energy). There are several factors driving this price decrease:

  • Improved manufacturing techniques and economies of scale have lowered production costs of solar panels.
  • Advances in solar cell technology have increased efficiency, allowing more electricity to be generated from the same sized panels.
  • Lower costs of other system components like inverters and racking.
  • Supportive government policies and incentives expanding solar deployment and bringing down soft costs.

The levelized cost of electricity from solar PV, which accounts for system costs over its lifetime, dropped by around 90% over the last decade (Solar Energy Systems Market Size, Share Report, 2022). This dramatic decline has made solar power cost competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Further cost reductions through technology improvements and market expansions will enable solar to become an increasingly dominant electricity source globally.

Solar Power from Space

The concept of space-based solar power involves collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it wirelessly to Earth. This approach aims to overcome problems with terrestrial solar power like nighttime, weather, and seasons which limit the amount of sunlight reaching panels [1].

The general idea is to place enormous solar arrays into orbit and beam the power they generate down to Earth using microwaves or lasers. The solar arrays would be mounted on satellites or space stations at an altitude where they can collect sunlight 24/7 [2].

The key components needed include the space-based solar array to collect the energy, a power transmitter and antenna to beam the energy to Earth through wireless power transmission, and a receiving antenna (rectenna) on the ground to receive and convert the transmission back into electricity [3].

Though still a theoretical concept, space-based solar power could provide a constant supply of renewable energy, overcoming geographic and weather constraints of Earth-based solar. Significant technological advances are still needed for affordable implementation.

Future of Solar

Solar energy is projected to continue growing rapidly over the next decades. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar will supply around 16% of global electricity by 2050. The MIT Future of Solar Energy study predicts solar providing up to 21% of global electricity by 2050.

Major innovations could enable even faster growth. Perovskite solar cells have the potential for much higher efficiencies and lower costs than traditional silicon cells. Concentrated solar power plants with integrated thermal storage will allow solar to provide baseload power. Space-based solar power could provide unlimited clean energy from space via solar panels on satellites or the moon.

With costs continuing to fall and technology improving, solar is poised to become a major global energy source and play a key role in decarbonization efforts worldwide.

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