I’m willing to bet that flat solar panels are the picture that pops into most people’s heads when they think about solar power. In reality, there are several different variations of solar energy, and some of them don’t even require the use of solar panels. What’s super surprising is that some of the solar power technologies I am going to mention have been used for centuries! Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the ways we can use the power of the sun to benefit us.
Photovoltaic systems are what most initially think about when discussing solar power. This type of power involves the use of solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. Solar panels range in size and can be used for all sorts of applications. One main advantage of this type of solar power is that it can be utilized at the consumer level. Whether one wants to place them on top of their home to reduce their energy bill or connect a small panel to their cellular phone to charge it outdoors, almost anyone can use this type of technology.
Solar Hot Water
Another solar technology used in more industrial environments is solar hot water. Solar hot water systems use the sun’s heat to heat water and provide hot water to buildings as opposed to the use of a gas-powered hot water heater. This type of system passes tubes through a heat collector in order to heat water and eventually store it in a reservoir. A metal box which collects heat is placed on top of a building facing the sun. Over time, the inside of this box becomes extremely hot. Tubes containing water or other fluids pass through this box, and the heat from inside the box heats the fluid. Eventually, the fluid is stored in a tank where it can be used as needed.
One of the most sophisticated systems used to garner power from the sun is solar electricity. This type of technology uses heat from the sun to generate electricity (as opposed to how photovoltaic systems use the sun’s light). There are a few ways this can be accomplished, but ultimately, these methods result in heat being used to power a steam generator. In most cases, mirrors reflect the sun’s light to heat various compounds such as water, oil, or salt. Once heated, these compounds can power a generator that is capable of producing electricity.
Passive Solar Heating and Daylighting
Passive solar power systems are implemented by making buildings designed to play off of the sun’s natural qualities. Since the south sides of buildings receive the most sunlight, large windows or openings are built on the south side to allow light and heat inside. Also, by constructing the walls and floors with materials that absorb heat, this aids in keeping a building warm. More advanced techniques even allow heat to circulate throughout a building and keep the inside cool during the hot summer months. When it comes to lighting, large, open spaces combined with materials that reflect light well can be used to illuminate all areas of a building. This type of technology has been used for thousands of years and is still used today!
Solar Process Space Heating and Cooling
We can also create hot or cold air-using methods very similar to those we use to create solar hot water. Some buildings place a metal plate with small holes on a south-facing wall. The heat which passes through the holes into the building is then sucked into a ventilation system where it provides warm air throughout. Using a few chemistry tricks, this type of technology can also use heat to provide cool air as well. Solar process space heating and cooling are especially useful in colder climates where temperature regulation is a little more challenging.
As you can see, there are several ways the sun’s power can be utilized to provide users with general electricity, lighting, and temperature regulation. Who would have thought that we could use the sun to cool down a building? It’s highly likely that we’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg and very interesting to think about what other methods scientists may discover which harness the sun’s power in the future. The possibilities seem endless and exciting.