7 Uses of Solar Energy

Our sun is the source of all life on Earth, and solar energy is useful to us in many different ways. The sun creates two main types of energy – light and heat – that we can harness for many activities ranging from photosynthesis in plants to creating electricity with photovoltaic (PV) cells to heating water and food. We explore seven common uses and benefits of sunlight in our daily lives.

1. Solar Electricity

Solar electricity is growing in popularity as solar panel costs decline and more people become aware of the financial and environmental benefits of solar energy. While still a very small percentage of the electricity generated in the U.S. (1.9% in 2017), solar electricity is growing rapidly (almost tripling over a three year period and up +40% versus 2016) according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Distributed solar PV is typically installed on the rooftops of homes or businesses. These solar power systems generate electricity to offset the property owner’s usage and send any excess production to the electric grid.

A solar battery can connect to your solar power system to enable you to use solar after the sun goes down, power an EV overnight, or provide backup power during emergencies. Some homeowners may choose to go completely off the grid with a solar power and battery system.

In some cases, solar PV may be installed on an adjacent structure such as a barn or mounted to the ground, and then connected to the meter using underground cabling.

Utility scale solar PV farms can generate enough electricity to power entire cities. An even more efficient solar technology is concentrated solar power (CSP). A CSP solar farm uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate the sun’s energy towards a tower or other receiver, generating heat that can power a turbine to create electricity. That thermal energy may be stored before powering a generator, which makes it a more flexible source of electricity than solar PV. The world’s largest CSP solar farm is the 390 megawatt (MW) Ivanpah project in California’s Mojave Desert, although an even larger 580 MW CSP plant under construction in Morocco may soon claim that title.

2. Solar Water Heating

Most solar water heating solutions create hot water that is consumed inside the home. Solar water heaters use a rooftop cell to absorb the sun’s heat and transfer it to the water tank. Solar water heaters usually have a five to ten year payback according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Another use of solar energy, especially in the southern and southwestern U.S., is heating swimming pools. Water is circulated to a collector where it is heated by sunlight and then pumped back into the pool. With costs between $3,000 and $4,000 and a payback of 1.5 to 7 years, the U.S. DOE says that “solar pool heating is the most cost-effective use of solar energy in many climates.”

3. Solar Heating

Typical uses of solar space heating systems include powering radiant floors or pairing with a Forced Hot Air (FHA) system to heat a home. Passive solar home design can also heat homes and businesses in the winter by taking into consideration the placement of windows and the selection of materials used in the building.

4. Solar Ventilation

Solar ventilation solutions such as solar attic fans can reduce the burden of your HVAC by helping to cool your home during the summer. This may be a good option if you are not able to install a solar PV system that offsets your home’s entire electricity use. One innovative product is the Solatube solar attic fan.

Commercial and industrial applications of solar process heat include solar ventilation technologies that can preheat a building’s air in cold climates, reducing energy costs.

5. Solar Lighting

Solar lights have become ubiquitous and can be found everywhere from home landscaping and security lights to road signs and street lights. These solar lighting technologies for your home are inexpensive and readily available from basic to high-end designs everywhere from your local hardware store to online shopping websites such as Amazon.com.

One innovative use of indoor solar lighting, featured on Mashable, is the Solatube skylight that adds natural light while reducing energy usage.

6. Portable Solar

In our connected world, phones and tablets are always with us and, let’s face it, often running low on battery. Portable solar PV chargers can keep our personal electric devices charged on the go. The technology already exists to integrate solar cells into our phones and has been in watches since the 1970s (see the Citizen Eco-Drive). Researchers in Japan have even developed lightweight, water-resistant solar cells that could someday be sewed into clothing to power our devices.

7. Solar Transportation

Solar-powered vehicles may be the future, with existing applications including buses, trains, airplanes, and race cars built by students in Australia and the U.S. A fully solar-powered car is even slated for commercial release in 2019. This use of solar energy is not yet widely available, unless you own an electric car or EV and charge it with solar panels (generally via a solar-connected battery).

A Solar-Powered Future

Renewable energy is already becoming a more familiar part of our lives, and innovation will continue to drive new applications of solar energy technologies that will improve our daily lives and help power a cleaner world. How many more uses of solar energy will there be in the future? We are excited to find out!