Author: Siobhan McClelland, Canadian Geographic
Publish Date: Oct 3, 2013 Last Update: Sep 21, 2018
The quantity of available solar energy varies depending on the season, weather and location of the location of the technology used to harness the sunlight.
Solar technologies use the sun’s energy to heat homes and water and generate electricity. The development of solar technologies is relatively modern, going back only 40 or 50 years.
Photovoltaic cells are made of thin layers of material, such as crystalline silicon, which are treated with special components that have either too many or too few electrons. When the sunlight strikes an active area of a cell, electrons flow, creating an electric current. If solar cells are bundled together in modules or panels, they can power individual homes and businesses.
Active solar thermal systems capture sunlight on a collector, such as a metal plate or mirror. As collectors heat up, they transfer the energy to air or water, heating spaces and water in homes. A similar method is a concentrating solar power system, which also captures the sun’s energy using a mirror. However in this case, the heat is used to boil liquid to create steam and produce electricity using a generator.
Passive solar heating involves using parts of a building, such as walls, windows or roofs, to absorb the sun’s energy and keep heat from escaping. For instance, high-efficiency windows are used in combination with insulation and airtight construction to keep heat inside a building.
While the operation of solar panels does not produce any emissions, there are environmental consequences when solar equipment is no longer in use. Photovoltaic systems often use lead-acid batteries, and although these batteries are becoming more recyclable and have longer life spans, they have the potential to contaminate groundwater at landfills.
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