Energy from the sun

The sun has produced energy for billions of years and is the ultimate source for all of the energy sources and fuels that we use today. People have used the sun's rays (solar radiation) for thousands of years for warmth and to dry meat, fruit, and grains. Over time, people developed devices (technologies) to collect solar energy for heat and to convert it into electricity.

Radiant energy from the sun has powered life on earth for many millions of years.
The sun

Source: NASA

Collecting and using solar thermal (heat) energy

An example of an early solar energy collection device is the solar oven (a box for collecting and absorbing sunlight). In the 1830's, British astronomer John Herschel used a solar oven to cook food during an expedition to Africa. People now use many different technologies for collecting and converting solar radiation into useful heat energy for a variety of purposes.

We use solar thermal energy systems to

  • heat water for use in homes, buildings, or swimming pools
  • heat the inside of homes, greenhouses, and other buildings
  • heat fluids to high temperatures in solar thermal power plants

Solar photovoltaic systems convert sunlight into electricity

Solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, or solar cells, change sunlight directly into electricity. Small PV cells can power calculators, watches, and other small electronic devices. Arrangements of many solar cells in PV panels and arrangements of multiple PV panels in PV arrays can produce electricity for an entire house. Some PV power plants have large arrays that cover many acres to produce electricity for thousands of homes.

Solar energy has benefits and some limitations

The two main benefits of using solar energy are

  • Solar energy systems do not produce air pollutants or carbon dioxide.
  • Solar energy systems on buildings have minimal impact on the environment.

The main limitations of solar energy are

  • The amount of sunlight that arrives at the earth's surface is not constant. The amount of sunlight varies depending on location, time of day, season of the year, and weather conditions.
  • The amount of sunlight reaching a square foot of the earth's surface is relatively small, so a large surface area is necessary to absorb or collect a useful amount of energy.