Solar powered electricity and solar thermal heating are methods of harvesting the sun to power the modern lives we have all become accustomed to. The burning of fossil fuels releases compounds, like carbon dioxide and methane, that change the content of our atmosphere and oceans, and thereby changes the way our Earth functions, what kinds of crops can be grown where, and the regional climates we are used to.
The cost of solar photovoltaic panels (or PV for short) has decreased rapidly over the past 10, even 5 years! With manufacturing processes streamlined, and competitive markets, solar is edging closer to what we call grid parity, which just means that the cost of producing electricity from solar power is almost as cheap as developed methods, like burning coal!
How does solar power work?
Most electricity production is created when a material, like coal or natural gas, is burned. Usually, this is done to boil water to make steam, which turns a turbine connected to a generator. This process turns that thermal energy into mechanical energy into electrical energy. That’s a lot of steps! Solar power uses photons (or light particles) to manipulate materials inside of a photovoltaic cell. The photons bump electrons out of their molecules and those electrons travel to a conductive material, like copper, to make electricity. A benefit of solar PV is that the power produced is often used on or very near the site of production, meaning that less energy is lost traveling across long transmission lines. For more information – check out this TED Ed video.