Many people are under the misconception that solar energy is only useful for certain things. For instance, they think that only roofs can collect solar energy due to its direct exposure to the sun, and that solar energy can only be used for heating water or generating electricity. This simply is not true, and while some areas definitely favor one energy source over another (like roofs favor solar, while swimming pools prefer gas-based heating), it’s always acceptable to use more than one source to achieve your desired results.
How Does Solar Energy Work?
When the sun is out, we generally see it as a positive factor, but it can also cause havoc if it is not controlled properly. The sun provides us with essential energy in the form of light, which enables us to do a variety of things. When light hits the earth, it is either reflected away from the earth or absorbed by plants and animals living on the surface. In the former case, the light does not provide any energy at all to the system; in the latter, it can still provide some usable energy – but only if collected and focused correctly!
As mentioned above, not all areas of the earth are suitable for solar energy collection due to its exposure to the sun. Areas in the southern regions of the United States, for example, are often too warm for it to be effective. The same goes for parts of Europe and Asia. On the other hand, Greenland, the Arctic Circle, and Antarctica are the perfect places for solar energy collection because they are inhabited by animals and plants that allow for the absorption of light and the generation of electricity (1).
There must be a balance between the earth and the sun, and in most cases, the sun will rule (2). When the sun is low in the sky and not directly overhead, you can still usually collect some usable energy by positioning your solar panels so that the sun directly hits them. When the sun is at its peak, however, direct exposure is not possible and you must find ways to make use of the light indirectly.
Where Can I Use Solar Energy?
There are essentially three categories of places where solar energy can be effectively used:
- Heating water
- Cooling water
- Electricity generation
Heating water is probably the most common use for solar energy, and it can also be its most practical application. Solar energy heats water through a variety of means, such as the traditional heat exchanger or by directly heating the water using a solar heater. Solar water heaters are completely passive and dependent on the sun for operation; they do not need additional energy to function, which makes them an efficient choice if you are looking to generate electricity and heat simultaneously (3).
The downside with solar water heaters is that they are rather expensive to purchase and install, which limits their appeal in residential areas (4).
Which Type Of Heating Do I Need?
The first thing you want to do before generating any form of electricity using solar energy is to figure out what type of heating do you need. There are essentially three types of heat:
- Colder heat
- Warmer heat
- Cold heat
You can use any of these three types of heat in your home, but they all have advantages and disadvantages. For instance, if you live in a place with a lot of extreme cold, you can use electric blankets to keep yourself warm in the winter, but you must also ensure that your pipes are sufficiently insulated to prevent your water from freezing during the winter (5).
If you live in a place with a lot of extreme heat, you can either use a fan to keep your cool or move to a cooler location, but you must remember that air-conditioning makes use of electricity, which is generated by solar energy, so you are trading one energy source for another (6).
In most cases, you can use the same form of heating for all three types of uses mentioned above (7), though you may need to purchase a separate system for each purpose if you are looking to heat water using solar energy (8).
Is Solar Energy Better Than Other Forms Of Heating?
Although solar energy heats water better than most other forms of heat, this form of heating has its drawbacks. In most cases, solar energy cannot match the cost effectiveness of other forms of heating (9), especially not when you consider the cost of installation and maintenance. The latter is something you have to take care of even if you decide to discontinue use of the system after some time. For this reason, most people prefer to use other forms of heat when possible – either hot water or electricity (10).
Even though they are not as efficient as other forms of heating, solar water heaters have a lower initial purchase price than most other forms of heater (11). In case you are in a place with a lot of snow and cold climates, the price is even better because you are not paying for the insulation required for most other forms of heating (12).
When it comes to using solar energy for electricity generation, the most practical application is probably powering small devices like cell phones and small appliances. These smaller devices are less affected by the fluctuation in voltage and frequency that occur with alternating current (ac), and they do not need as much power as large devices such as washers and dryers (13).
The downsides of using solar energy for electricity generation are similar to those of using it for heating water. For one, you have the initial investment cost and the need for additional equipment (like solar cells and inverters) to make the electricity usable (14).
When it comes to cooling your home, there are various ways you can use solar energy effectively without having to install any additional equipment. For instance, you can use the sun to force water through evaporative cooling, where the heat is given off as water vapor instead of heat (15). This form of energy is free and its efficiency is often high because the sun is a plentiful source of heat. However, you must remember that this type of system only provides cooling and does not generate electricity or heat your water (16).
It is always better to use natural resources to generate electricity and heat rather than rely on costly and non-renewable sources. With the right solar system and equipment, you can generate unlimited electricity and heat to provide for your home’s needs, which is an invaluable source of power and savings.