Solar power (also knows as solar radiation or insolation) is energy from the sun.
This energy, in the form of heat and light, supports all life on Earth, drives the Earth's climate and weather and is predominately responsible for the class of resources collectively known as renewable energy. Solar energy also broadly describes technologies that utilize sunlight.
The applications are diverse and date back millennia.
The Greeks, Native Americans and Chinese warmed their buildings by orienting them toward the sun.
In Europe, farmers used elaborate field orientation and thermal mass to increase crop yields during the Little Ice Age.
Modern solar technologies continue to harness the sun to provide water heating, daylighting and even flight. Solar power generally describes technologies that convert sunlight into electricity and in some cases thermal or mechanical power.
In 1866, the French engineer Auguste Mouchout successfully powered a steam engine with sunlight.
This is the first known example of a solar powered mechanical device.
Over the next 50 years inventors such as John Ericsson, Charles Tellier and Frank Shuman developed solar powered devices for irrigation, refrigeration and locomotion.
The progeny of these early developments are concentrating solar power plants. The modern age of solar power arrived in 1954 when researchers at Bell Laboratories developed a photovoltaic cell capable of effectively converting light into electricity.
This breakthrough marked a fundamental change in how power is generated.
Since then solar cells efficiencies have improved from 6% to 15% with experimental cells reaching efficiencies over 40%.
Prices on the other hand have fallen from $300 per watt to less than $3 per watt. The utilization of solar energy and solar power spans from traditional technologies that provide food, heat and light to electricity which is uniquely modern.
The diversity of form and long history of solar energy are manifest in a wide variety of applications. Many technologies use solar energy.
Some classifications of solar technology are active, passive, direct and indirect. Active solar systems use electrical and mechanical components such as tracking mechanisms, pumps and fans to process sunlight into usable outputs such as heating, lighting or electricity. Passive solar systems use non-mechanical techniques of controlling, converting and distributing sunlight into usable outputs such as heating, lighting, cooling or ventilation.
These techniques include selecting materials with favorable thermal properties, designing spaces that naturally circulate air, and referencing the position of a building to the sun. Direct solar generally refers to technologies or effects that involve a single conversion of sunlight which results in a usable form of energy. Indirect solar generally refers to technologies or effects that involves multiple transformations of sunlight which result in a usable form of energy. A solar cell or photovoltaic cell is a device that converts light into electricity using the photovoltaic effect. Until recently, their use has been limited because of high manufacturing costs.
One cost effective use has been in very low-power devices such as calculators with LCDs.
Another use has been in remote applications such as roadside emergency telephones, remote sensing, cathodic protection of pipe lines, and limited "off grid" home power applications.
A third use has been in powering orbiting satellites and spacecraft. To take advantage of the incoming electromagnetic radiation from the sun, solar panels can be attached to each house or building.
The panels should be mounted perpendicular to the arc of the sun to maximize usefulness.
The easiest way to use this electricity is by connecting the solar panels to a grid tie inverter.
However, these solar panels may also be used to charge batteries or other energy storage device.
Solar panels produce more power during summer months because they receive more sunlight. Total peak power of installed PV is around 6,000 MW as of the end of 2006.
Installed PV is projected to increase to over 9,000 MW in 2007. Declining manufacturing costs (dropping at 3 to 5% a year in recent years) are expanding the range of cost-effective uses. .
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