What is Solar Energy?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Solar energy is an alternative energy source that involves harnessing the radiant light energy emitted by the sun and converting it into electrical current. Since the middle of the 20th century, the ability to harness and utilize solar energy has greatly increased, making it possible for homes and businesses to make use of the renewal energy source rather than rely on more conventional means of generating power. Research into the applications of solar energy continue, along with the development of more cost-effective ways to capture and store the energy for future use.

Solar panels can be installed on buildings to create energy from the sun's rays.
Solar panels can be installed on buildings to create energy from the sun's rays.

At present, the most common means of harnessing solar power is the utilization of a system involving a series of solar panels and storage batteries. The panels collect the radiant light and store the captured energy in the batteries. While energy is stored, it can also be used real time to operate various types of machinery and home appliances. The excess is stored for use at night or in other situations where radiant light is not readily available for some reason.

Many homes that feature solar power are also tied in to the power grid.
Many homes that feature solar power are also tied in to the power grid.

In a home powered by solar energy, batteries are now capable or maintaining a power supply that will maintain the operation of appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, computers and entertainment devices such as television sets. At the same time, the solar powered home can also use the stored energy to heat and cool the home or operate a hot water heater. Some homes today use a hybrid power system that integrates the use of solar energy along with power supplied by a traditional power grid. While the home is not completely dependent on solar power, this type of system can minimize utility bills and provide an excellent backup system in the event that a section of the local power grid should fail.

Along with homes, health care facilities are becoming increasingly open to the idea of solar energy as a source of power in an emergency situation. This would allow a hospital to continue functioning even if the power failed for some reason and a backup generator system was unable to meet the current demand for power.

Once considered extremely expensive to build and install, the price for solar energy systems is considerably less than in the last decades of the 20th century. In addition to being more affordable, the newer solar energy systems are also much more efficient than previous generations, which helps them to be more appealing to homeowners and business owners alike.

Solar energy powered homes are now able to power major household appliances like stoves, refrigerators, computers and TVs.
Solar energy powered homes are now able to power major household appliances like stoves, refrigerators, computers and TVs.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


We need cheaper energy to save money and we need good information about renewable energy.


Great stuff, great article and I enjoyed reading the comments. So much potential we can tap into.

Renewable energy made fun! --Bec


In the U.S., solar energy is becoming very popular, so I believe the price of solar energy will come down. However, I also believe doing it yourself is the way to go so you know how it works and you can service any problems that may come up. It saves you a lot of money in installation, service, and upgrades knowing how to do it yourself.


If the generating power cost of solar energy is lower than by oil or gas, which will push people to use solar energy, the cost is the key point. How long will this come true? I think it is not far away.


Very worthy information in this article about solar energy. Solar energy is very effective and environmentally friendly. So as to consider the cost of it, every person can afford with a margin of efficiency.


In the UK we need to spread the word about solar energy because many people think that due to our climate, it won't work. This obviously is not true, I have a client who is offering free solar panels to companies throughout the UK.


@Glasshouse, Alchemy - Don’t forget about passive solar. It is not a new technology at all, in fact; it is making a comeback in modern residential and commercial structures. Passive solar has more to do with design than technology. Structures can be built to use the sun’s energy and thermodynamic properties to reduce the amount of 'other' energy used. Knowing how the sun will heat the air can allow a architect to use the airflow within a structure to perform some of the heating and cooling functions. Passive solar also uses the building’s design to replace artificial lighting with natural solar lighting. Passive solar design can incorporate things like thermal chimneys, window louvers, solar reflective films, and thermal reactive materials (i.e. water columns, brick, tile, concrete, etc.); all while taking into account weather patterns, and landscape of the structures site.


@ Glasshouse - Utility scale solar energy comes in two basic forms: Photovoltaic solar and thermal solar. Commercial scale photovoltaic farms are similar to the residential photovoltaic systems described in this article. The key differences between the two are the number of panels, and the installation of the panels. Unlike most residential rooftop systems, utility scale systems are mounted on motorized racks that track the sun through the sky to achieve maximum efficiency. Thermal solar systems use rows of mirrors that reflect focused beams of sunlight at a large boiler that runs a steam turbine. Think ants under a magnifying glass. There are also parabolic systems that use curved mirrors bouncing a focused beam of sunlight at a small stirling engine attached to the end (Looks like a giant satellite dish). A stirling engine is basically an external combustion engine that works by heating and cooling gas trapped within a closed system which then moves a piston. These types of utility scale solar energy systems can produce large amounts of energy, and they have already been proven in the field.


This article was informative, but I thought that there were more options when it came to using the suns energy. What about using solar energy on a large scale? How do solar farms work? Do solar farms use the same types of panels as residential properties? If solar energy is supposed to help wean our nation off of fossil fuels then I assume that we will have to think bigger than roof top panels. Can anyone give me more information on other types of solar technologies?

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