List of Different Uses of Solar Energy
Solar energy is commonly used to produce electricity, but there are additional uses for solar as well. Solar energy is usable as a form of home heating to replace your water heater and cook your food.
Solar energy is an increasingly popular alternative to more traditional forms of energy such as oil and coal. When most people think of solar energy, an image of large solar panels often comes to mind. This doesn't necessarily do justice to the range of uses solar energy supports, however. While electricity production is one popular use of solar, it is not the only way that we can harness the power of the sun. Solar energy is useful for producing electricity, heating your home, replacing your hot water heater and more.
The classic solar panel is made up of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert energy from the sun into electricity. This electricity is typically stored in batteries, allowing you to use the generated power over time instead of using it as it is generated. Solar panels come in a wide range of sizes, including large panels used to produce electricity for the home to small panels used in portable device chargers, solar calculators or solar-powered landscape lights.
When solar cells are used to power a home, you have the option of remaining connected to an existing power grid or to live completely off of the grid and rely solely on solar power. If you stay on the grid, your solar production will offset your need for electricity from the grid; depending on your provider, you may even be able to sell excess electricity to the provider if you produce more than your home consumes. If you live off of the grid, no external electrical connections are needed, but you may need additional production and battery capacity to ensure that your electrical needs are met throughout the year.
Solar energy is also an option when it comes to heating your home. Depending on the solar setup you use, this heating can either be active or passive. Active heating, or hydronic heating, uses a liquid or air-filled container that is exposed to the sun, allowing the solar energy to heat the container's contents. Fans or pumps circulate this through the home in pipes, transferring the heat from the pipes to the air within your home in the process.
Passive heating avoids circulating liquids through pipes in your home or using energy to power fans and pumps. Instead, solar energy is collected in materials that store heat through south-facing windows throughout the day. The natural flow of heat by convection allows the heat contained within these materials to enter the air and flow to cooler areas of the home. This creates an airflow system that continually replaces cooler air with warmer air throughout the day.
As with home heating, there are multiple ways to use solar energy to heat the water you use. The most basic form of solar water heating is a passive system that features a closed basin of water that is heated directly by the sun. This heated water then flows into an insulated storage tank, using the natural heat conduction of water to ensure that the water stays hot as heat is continually added to the water in the basin. A secondary heater attached to the storage tank may be used to keep hot water available day and night.
Active hot water systems are also available and are typically more efficient than passive systems. These systems feature flat heat collectors with piping in them and use pumps to move hot water through your water system. The pumps either move the hot water directly, or feature an indirect circulation system that collects heat in an antifreeze solution and then pumps that solution through pipes within an insulated water tank. Heat transfers through the pipes into the tank's water, and the solution within the pipes circulates to keep heat moving through the system.
Solar ovens harness the power of the sun to cook food, allowing you to reduce energy costs while cooking and even cook foods while camping without the need for a fire. The ovens are made of insulated materials with a clear lid, allowing the sun to shine through. A dark cooking pot is held within the oven; the sunlight heats the dark material of the cooking pot, increasing the temperature to the point that food within the pot cooks to food-safe temperatures.
Reflectors, materials that magnify the suns rays to increase the overall temperature within the oven and other modifications, allow for even more effective solar oven construction. While there are commercial solar ovens available, many solar oven aficionados prefer to build their own ovens and customize them to their individual needs.
As electric vehicles become more common, some homeowners who use solar power in their homes are starting to charge their vehicles using solar power instead of electricity from the grid. The time that it takes to fully charge an electric vehicle using solar power depends on the size and type of PV cell used, the time of the year and the overall amount of electricity available. For those interested in electric vehicles as a means of reducing their carbon footprints, however, using solar as a source of electricity for the vehicles is just about the ultimate way to accomplish their goal.
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory, "Solar Photovoltaic Technology Basics"
- Indiana Office of Energy Development, "Solar Energy"
- U.S. Department of Energy, "Solar Energy in the United States"
- U.S. Department of Energy, "Solar Water Heaters"
- NASA Earth Observatory, "Baking in the Sun"
- Popular Mechanics, "I Tried to Power Three Electric Vehicles With Solar Panels"