What is Solar Energy? In Simple English, No Tech Talk

Solar Energy, or often referred to as Solar Power, is radiant photonic energy from the sun that is harnessed in a variety of ways to provide both thermal and electrical energy for consumption. This clean, renewable resource can be used for a variety of domestic uses that include generating electricity, providing indoor heating, natural lighting, and hot water systems for homes and businesses.

Does this mean that you can just set a glass jar outside to capture the sun’s heat and be able to power your home with it? No, but you can make hot water that way, which is nice on those days when a cup of hot cocoa or tea is what you are after.

What is Solar Energy?
Base Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

Plants use photosynthesis to grow and thrive, giving us back clean oxygen and whatever fruits or grains we take from them. It is amazing to think that even without all the technology we have created, you can still harness the sun’s energy using the most basic of tools. Before we dive into more details about solar energy, let’s take a moment and look at a brief history of solar power.

Brief History of Solar Power

Humans have a long history of using solar power in our everyday lives dating back to the 7th century B.C. when humans used materials akin to magnifying glasses to light fires. Our ancestors later built what we now call sunrooms around the 3rd century B.C. to direct the sunlight into a concentrated area. Some early civilizations built their houses facing south to ensure that the heat from the sun could warm their homes during the cold winter months. 

Humanity has always relied upon the sun for its light and thermal energy, but it was not until more recently that we were able to harness that solar energy into electrical power. The illustration below shows some of the major milestones of the solar industry.

Image Source: IRENA

How Solar is Harnessed?

So how exactly do we capture all that energy? There are basically three ways this can be done: photovoltaic cells, solar heating & cooling, and concentrating solar power.

Photovoltaic Solar Energy (PV)

photovoltaic technology

Photovoltaic devices use semiconductors to generate electricity. The solar energy frees the electrons to allow them to pass through an electrical circuit. This process allows devices to get power and also sends electricity to the power grid.

If you take a moment and look around, you will probably find a lot of devices you own that use photovoltaic cells. You can find them in things from small electronics like flashlights and calculators all the way up to homes and businesses.

Learn more about Photovoltaic Solar Energy

Solar Heating & Cooling (SHC)

solar heating and cooling

Solar Heating & Cooling uses technologies, such as solar collectors, to capture thermal energy from the sun and use it to provide indoor heating, indoor cooling, and heated water for heated pools, homes, and businesses. This technology is not widely used due to the lack of media coverage compared to solar power, but it is gaining ground with consumers to reduce our dependence on using electricity or natural gas for heating & cooling. 

For anyone wanting to invest in renewable energy, the use of solar heating & cooling is a good start due to its efficiency, affordability and relatively short payback time. 

Learn more about Solar Heating & Cooling

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)

concentrating solar power

Concentrating Solar Power systems are not used in residential applications due to the size needed to generate the power. This system uses mirrors that reflect the energy from the sun to a receiver tube that contains an oil-like fluid. This fluid is heated up and can either be stored for night use or pumped directly into a heat exchanger that heats water to produce steam. This steam is used in conjunction with a turbine to generate electricity.

Learn more about Concentrating Solar Power

Solar Power Cost

As time progresses, the cost for solar continues to drop making solar a viable home improvement project. Of course, there are multiple factors that will play into what your final price will be and those factors are:

  • State you live in
  • Size of the system in KW
  • Manufacturer brand of the solar panels
  • Incentives offered at the federal, state and local levels

If you are looking for an approximate price range, you can expect to pay somewhere in the range of $2.50 per watt. The best advice to give is be sure to shop around because the cost to install a solar system for your home can vary drastically from company to company. Just by shopping quotes you could end up saving 10% or more.

Solar Calculator | Competing Solar Quotes

Solar Power Generation in the U.S.

With the reduction in cost and the impact on the environment, solar generation has steadily increased over the years, providing a greater share of the total energy needs both at home and abroad. The following chart shows the growth in the Megawatt Hours using solar over the course of a 10 year period from 2009 – 2019.

YearGeneration (Megawatthours)
2009891,179
20101,212,182
20111,817,696
20124,326,675
20139,035,620
201417,691,031
201524,892,904
201636,054,121
201753,286,174
201863,825,323
201968,328,000
Courtesy of U.S. Energy Information Administration

Solar Power Pros & Cons

The idea of purchasing any solar products is something that needs to be looked at closely, especially in cases where the purchase price is high. We never really think twice when picking up a calculator or light that is solar-powered because the price of those items never really gives us cause to pause, but when it costs hundreds or thousands of dollars our attention is focused. With any product that is on the market today, there are pros and there are cons to them. Here are some of the pros and cons when considering solar power products:

Advantages of Solar EnergyDisadvantages of Solar Energy
Savings on your electricity billWeather dependent
Environmental sustainabilitySpace Hog
Energy independenceDoesn’t work on every roof type
Renewable energy sourceEnergy storage is expensive
Diverse applicationsHigh cost
Low maintenance and no noiseAssociated with pollution
Increase the value of your homeDoesn’t move with you (except for portable solar)
Can be recharged with artificial lightConfusing project needs
Financial incentives from federal/state/local governmentsRoof penetration
Technology is constantly improvingHigh-pressure sales

Is Buying a Solar System Worth It?

Is Solar Power Worth It

For the consumer looking for home solar, this would depend on a number of factors such as currently electricity cost, system price, financing and how soon you plan to sell your home. The main idea behind getting a solar system installed in your home is oftentimes more financially motivated than environmentally motivated. 

This would mean that a vast majority of people are looking at this as a means to save money on their monthly power bill. Solar systems are a long term investment and have a high cost so for those planning to sell their homes in the next 5 years may want to think this over a bit more because your return on investment may not be worth it.

Those who are shopping around for portable solar systems for RV, camping, and outdoor use, there is a completely different set of things to look out for. If you are interested in learning more about the portable solar side of things then be sure to start with our articles about portable solar.

James Adams

Just a geek with a passion for saving the planet with solar technology...Or at least my little corner of it. Researching tech is something I really enjoy doing so my joy became this website. Hope you enjoy the content!

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