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Solar Energy – Powering the Future

07 Dec

Solar energy has been a regular news feature over the past few years. With energy companies, governments and infrastructure developers becoming ever more concerned with projects being sustainable and environmentally friendly, solar has increasingly become a more viable energy solution than fossil fuels or wind turbines. 

Recently, high profile initiatives such as Akon’s Lighting Africa project and the American Samoan island of Ta’u’s decision to run the island exclusively with solar power, have leant even more kudos to this form of renewable energy. 

So, how do you harness a never-ending energy source? Read on to learn more!

How Does It Work?

Black Hole Sun

Our sun is essentially a giant nuclear reactor – converting hydrogen into helium and producing heat and light (photons) as a bi-product. Scientists estimate that photons travel the 93-million-mile distance to Earth in about 8.5 minutes. 

According to us.sunpower.com, every hour enough photons hit the surface of the Earth to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year. However, the ability to utilise this energy is not widely available at present. 

The Panels

Solar panels work in a similar way to ordinary batteries. They are made out of silicone, which conducts electricity easily, and each cell has a silicone layer with a positive charge and a negative charge - generating an electric field. 

When light hits the panels, the electrons contained within each cell are “knocked loose” from their atomic bonds, this is what produces electricity. 

However, different electrical systems require different kinds of electrical currents in order to be powered correctly. A battery powered torch for example, will use a Direct Current (DC). This means that the electrons travel from the positive side of the battery to the negative side through the lightbulb in the torch in an endless cycle. Most modern appliances which require more complex wiring, such as cars and televisions, use an Alternating Current (AC) which pushes and pulls the electrons between the positive and negative poles. 

Conversion

Solar panels on their own only produce DC electricity. Therefore, in order for us to be able to utilise the electricity generated by solar panels, an inverter needs to be in place to convert the DC electricity into AC electricity. In addition, they can also monitor the solar energy system for faults and provide “grounding” for the electrical unit.  

There are different classes of solar inverters, depending on the type of solar energy system being used. These are:
  • Stand Alone Inverters – Used for systems that directly supply homes or appliances 
  • Synchronous/Grid-tie Inverters – Create a link between the home system and the power grid, excess energy can be sold back to utility companies or stored for future use. 
  • Multifunction Inverters – Can do both. 
In addition, there are also different types of inverter. These are:
  • Central/String Inverters – Convert electricity from multiple panels at once, this can lead to one panel which is less efficient reducing the overall capabilities of the solar system
  • Microinverter – Convert electricity for only one panel, allowing for maximum efficiency. 
What are the Pros and Cons?

Pros
  • Environmentally friendly 
  • Renewable - NASA estimates that we have 6.5 billion years until the sun expires
  • Low cost – solar panel systems can be expensive to install, but can significantly reduce electricity costs
  • Silent - compared to wind turbines and generators which run on fossil fuels or nuclear power which can be noisy
  • Government incentivised (in some countries)
  • Low maintenance
  • Evolving and improving technologies
Cons
  • Intermittent – production of solar energy can be greatly reduced at night time, during the early morning and on cloudy days
  • Associated with pollution – production of solar panels and batteries is associated with greenhouse gasses
  • Materials – some of the materials required to make certain types of solar panels are rare and expensive 
  • Space requirements – solar panels require a large amount of physical space, which traditionally needs to be flat
  • Expensive – installing solar energy systems can be very expensive, batteries which are capable of storing the energy harnessed by solar panels can also be very expensive. 
Recent Projects Using Solar Energy

Akon Lighting Africa – aims to utilise solar energy to drive development throughout Africa

California’s Solar Star Project – providing electricity to over 255,000 homes. 

Golmud Solar Park – currently in Phase – IV of development, this park is a 500MW photovoltaic park located in the Qinghai Province.

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park - Dubai plans to build the largest solar power plant by 2030. 

India's Sunderbans project  – Located in the remote village of Indrapur, this initiative from Tata Power Solar aims to bring the 2,000 residents life changing electricity. 
Tagged In: Technical
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