What are the Different Types of Solar Energy Equipment?

C. Martin

The different types of solar energy equipment include a large variety of devices that permit energy from the sun to be trapped and converted to usable energy, such as electricity or thermal energy. Solar energy equipment is often categorized into two main types: thermal equipment which produces heat, and photovoltaic equipment, or photovoltaic cells, which produce electricity. Solar energy is a massive source of renewable energy which humans have only tapped on a relatively small scale.

Solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.
Solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.

Solar energy production with thermal equipment can be used for many applications, such as for heating buildings, or producing hot water for residential use or for use in industrial processes. Thermal systems can also be used to generate electricity indirectly by means of a type of solar energy equipment called a heat engine. Another way of creating electricity using thermal solar power is to use the solar power energy to produce steam, then use the steam to power turbines which generate electricity.

Concentrated solar power, also called solar thermal, is a means of gathering solar energy without photovoltaic (PV) panels.
Concentrated solar power, also called solar thermal, is a means of gathering solar energy without photovoltaic (PV) panels.

The main type of solar energy equipment which directly generates electricity is the photovoltaic cell, sometimes called a solar cell. This technology incorporates semiconductors made of silicon or similar types of materials, which absorb the energy from waves of light and directly convert this into electrical power. Solar energy companies usually manufacture some kind of module in which solar cells are grouped together, typically with a tough outer covering of glass, which allows sunlight to pass through while protecting the delicate semiconductors below. The electricity generated by the solar cells may be used to power equipment, charge a battery, or feed into an existing electricity grid.

Some of the important types of solar energy equipment include building integrated photovoltaics, standalone photovoltaic devices, and solar power plants. Building integrated photovoltaics are systems that may be incorporated into new buildings, either industrial or domestic, as either a main source of power or a top-up energy generating system. This approach may be particularly attractive for developments that are built at some distance from the usual supply of electricity, or electrical grid.

Standalone photovoltaic devices have been long used to power small machines such as calculators. More recent applications of standalone solar energy equipment include emergency telephones, traffic signs, and parking meters. These types of applications may be particularly attractive for remote locations. Solar energy power plants can generate large amounts of electricity. These types of power station rely on the fact that while sunlight is intermittent in most areas, it is usually possible to predict fairly accurately how much sunlight will be available over months or years.

Solar photovoltaic power supplies often require the installation of switch disconnectors, or isolators.
Solar photovoltaic power supplies often require the installation of switch disconnectors, or isolators.

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Discussion Comments


@cougars- Why can't these thermal solar plants use reclaimed waste water to create steam and power their turbines? Is there some type of technical barrier to using reclaimed wastewater or filtered gray water? It seems like the water issue would only be a minor issue if the plants used treated wastewater that is not suitable for drinking anyway. Like Alchemy, I agree that one of the biggest advantages of thermal solar energy is that we can locate solar energy equipment manufacturers’ right here in the United States. The economic and energy security benefits are worth the investment in solving the issue of using wastewater.


@Alchemy- I agree that thermal solar would be a great type of renewable energy to move toward a more secure energy future, but every energy technology has its downsides. A few disadvantages of thermal solar energy seem to derail many large projects during the planning and permitting phase. The biggest roadblock to scaling up solar thermal energy is fresh water. Solar thermal plants, except those that use heat engines and parabolic dishes, use as much fresh water if not more than coal and natural gas plants.

Thermal solar plants are also dependent on direct solar energy, unable to concentrate diffused energy. For this, they must be sited in regions with similar heating degree days to Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. This puts energy at odds with the other precious resource in these areas...potable water. I love the idea of solar thermal energy, but it would mean that these regions would need to use water resources more efficiently; something they have not been able to do as of yet.


Why don’t we use more thermal solar energy in this country? It seems like it would be one of the best types of solar energy products. The technology does not require the resource intensive microchip manufacturing that photovoltaic does. Most components of thermal solar thermal systems can be made right here in this country, reviving old manufacturing towns and cities. The plants are also very well developed, able to use much of the equipment of a coal or gas fired plant.

The only thing that is different between a solar thermal plant and a coal plant is how the steam is created. To me, it seems like there is no better form of renewable homegrown energy. Scaling up thermal solar would be a great way to increase energy security.

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