Solar Energy FAQ's - About Solar Energy

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How does Solar Energy work?

Solar electric systems are composed of four critical components; Solar Panels, Charge Controllers, Batteries and Inverters. These components are necessary to have a Solar Electric (PV) system that functions efficiently.

Solar Panels

Solar panels are the main components of the system. The solar panels charge the batteries. Several solar panels wired together create what is called a solar array. The overall size of the solar array will determine the amount of power or energy that will be produced from a solar electric system. The location of a solar electric system plays a major role in the overall energy output of a solar power system. Geographic areas such as Florida, Southern California, or Texas tend to produce more solar energy than do locations like Oregon, Maine or Maryland. Systems located closer to the equator will be the most efficient.
Zareba Systems Solar Panel Battery Charger, Model# GSP1

Charge Controllers

Although charge controllers come in many different sizes and types, they all perform a similar function. Charge controllers prevent the solar panel or array from overcharging the battery(s).
Northern Industrial Tools 30 Amp Charge Controller


Batteries store energy for solar electric systems. Batteries play the role of storing the energy your solar panels produce during the day. Batteries will provide you with the energy you need at night. Components that are powered by solar electric systems receive their power from batteries rather than directly from the output of a solar panel. A solar panel produces a high voltage that can damage electronics if loads are powered directly.
Mighty Mule Solar Powered Battery Recharger


The last major component is the Inverter. The inverter converts the DC energy stored in your batteries and turns it into the AC power you use in your home. Inverters are rated by wattage and the quality of their output. You can use a 50 watt inverter that plugs into your car 12 volt outlet to power a computer, or you could have a 4000 to 11,000 watt inverter system that powers your home. These major components can be put together in many different ways. Minor components like wire, disconnects, circuit breakers, and fuses are also needed for a complete system.
Solar-Powered Floodlight with Motion Sensor

A Little History

The word solar is derived from the Roman word Sol (the god of the sun), therefore, the word solar refers to the sun meaning solar power is power from the sun. When we say something is solar powered, we mean that the energy it uses was converted directly from solar energy or sunlight energy. The sun provides Earth with 2 major forms of energy, heat and light. Some solar powered systems utilize the heat energy while others transform the light energy into electrical energy (electricity). We can find many uses for both forms of energy. Solar energy is often referred to as an "alternative energy" to fossil fuel energy sources such as oil and coal.

The history of solar energy dates as far back as the Greek and Roman empires, during a time when myth and reality were intertwined. To the Greeks, Romans, and the Egyptians of that time, nature and the environment around them was seen as the home of the gods. The Egyptians followed the rising sun for guidance to the tombs of their kings and queens. Both the Greeks and the Egyptians used the sun as part of the mummification process in drying the dead bodies. Both the Egyptians and the Greeks used passive solar power to help them in their daily lives. The Greeks used a technique that incorporated mirrors reflecting the sunís light toward Roman ships prepared for war. The Greeks won that war due to the sunís resilient power.

Solar energy dates back to the times of ancient Egypt when Egyptians built rooms to store the energy from the sun.

Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist, first described the photovoltaic (PV) effect in 1839 when he found that certain materials produced small amounts of electric current when exposed to light.

Photoelectric Effect and Quantum Mechanics

The photoelectric effect and quantum mechanics resulting in present day photovoltaic and solar cells were first studied by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century. Einstein observed that when light hit a metal surface an electric current could be observed.

The world's first solar power collector was built by Horace de Saussare, a Swiss scientist.

Solar cells were developed in the 1950ís and 1960ís for the space program as an ideal power source for satellites, but were too costly for general use.

The first practical solar cells were produced in the 1970ís as a response to increased interest in alternative power sources. Between 1973 and 1974 solar energy interest was on the rise in the United States. Much of this interest came from the oil embargos enforced in the Middle East. In the 1990ís the Gulf War also produced a renewed interest in solar power.

Improvements in the design and manufacture of photovoltaic modules have been incorporated so modules now endure environmental wear for decades.

Energy from photovoltaic systems can be produced today for less than $1/watt as compared to costs of approximately $200/watt when first used in the space program. (Ristinen and Kraushaar)