How is Solar Energy Produced and Used?

In light of the recent disasters brought on by our continued dependence on fossil fuels (witness the continued massive gushing of oil from the broken well off the coast of Louisiana, and the recent coal mining disaster in West Virginia), the sooner more information concerning solar is made available to more people the better. This way they can see the benefits of solar not only for themselves but also for the environment, and we can move closer to a time when disasters like the ones mentioned above will be a thing of the past.

So, let’s start by answering the question, “How is solar energy produced and used?”.

Just What Is Solar Energy?

When people talk about solar energy being produced, what they’re actually referring to in most cases is solar power. The dictionary definition of solar states “of or pertaining to the sun” and that solar energy is “energy derived from the sun in the form of solar radiation”. So, as you can see, solar energy is actually produced by the sun with no help or interference from man, so it’s all natural and provided to us free of charge every day in the form of light and heat. Quite remarkable.

The amount of energy from the sun we actually put to use dwarfs in comparison with how much we actually receive, so what can we do to make use of more of the sun’s over-abundant energy?

One thing we can all do is consciously apply the principles of passive solar. I say “consciously” because most of us are applying the principles most days, but just don’t realize we’re doing it. Do you open your drapes in the morning to let the light in? Well, guess what? You’re applying passive solar principles, because, when you allow the sun’s light and heat into your home, it may be that some of the heat is absorbed in your concrete floors and/or walls, reducing the daytime temperature, and that heat will be released later as the temperature cools at night, maintaining the temperature in your home at a comfortable level.

Solar Energy Versus Solar Power

So, we’ve talked about how solar is produced and how it can be used. But, is that what most people think of when they refer to solar and producing it? They’re actually making a common mistake, which is to confuse the term “solar energy” with the term “solar power”.

Solar power is produced as a result of the conversion of solar energy into a form of usable energy, or power, via man-made means. Take the most common example of that, or, at least, the one most people think of these days, that of solar panels. Solar panels contain a semiconductor of some kind, usually silicon, which reacts with sunlight and generates an electrical current. The current is usually DC (Direct Current), which must be converted to AC (Alternating Current) to power household appliances and devices since they run off AC.

Another common example is the use of the sun’s heat to warm water via solar collectors. That water is then used to supply a home’s or business’s hot water needs or to provide heat to a building. The same principle is also used to heat swimming pools. Again, this is solar power supplied as a result of the conversion of solar energy to something usable by man, in this case hot water.

So, the question “How is solar energy produced and used?” is a bit misleading and the answer will vary depending on whether the term solar energy is used strictly according to the dictionary definition, or if it’s used, as seems to be the case more often than not, as a synonym for solar power.

Either way, it all boils down to the fact that we receive abundant energy from the sun in the forms of light and heat and it’s then up to us as to how we take advantage of that, or, if, in fact, we do at all. Not only should we take advantage of it, but we must, in order to avoid further ecological and environmental disasters brought about by our increasingly dangerous search for rapidly decreasing supplies of fossil fuels.

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