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How powerful is the sun? According to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL), the amount of energy from the sunlight that falls to the earth in one hour could supply the world’s energy needs for an entire year! Powerful indeed.
In 2016, solar power was the fastest-growing source of new energy around the globe. Though it still accounts for only about 2 percent of total electricity generation in the United States, solar energy has proven itself as a viable form of renewable energy, poised for continued growth in years to come.
And the best part about solar energy? As long as the sun shines, we can use it to heat, cool, and light our homes and businesses, without polluting our precious planet.
What is solar energy?
Solar energy captures the sun’s light (photons) and converts it to electricity (voltage), thus producing the term “photovoltaic,” or PV. It can be used to power homes, businesses, cars, aircraft, calculators and other small appliances, along with many other diverse applications.
For such a recent hot-button topic, solar energy has a surprisingly rich history. (The sun has, after all, been around for quite a while!) Solar cell, or PV, technology began during the Industrial Revolution. In 1839, French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar demonstrated the photovoltaic effect — the ability of a solar cell to convert sunlight into electricity. Forty-four years later, American inventor Charles Fritts developed the world’s first rooftop solar array, using selenium coating on the panels to produce a weak electric current. But Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper explaining the photoelectric effect — for which he won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 — helped the world understand how light produces energy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government helped pioneer early PV technology, including launching the first spacecraft to utilize solar panels — Vanguard I — in 1958.
Flash forward: as of early 2018, the U.S. has more than 55 gigawatts of total installed solar energy capacity (enough to power 10.7 million homes). A recent report by Solar Energy Industries Association® and GTM Research projects the total installed PV capacity in the U.S. will more than double this amount by 2023.
How does a solar panel work?
Ever wonder exactly how sunshine is turned into electricity?
First, some quick and basic definitions to keep in mind:
Photon: A particle of light
Solar cells: The components of a solar panel; they’re square-shaped, usually made from silicon, and constructed with a positive and negative layer, which together create an electric circuit
Direct current (DC): A type of power whose electric charge flows in one direction; typically found in batteries and other portable devices
Alternate current (AC): A type of power whose electric charge changes directions; the type of electricity that powers items plugged into wall outlets
Now, the scientific process:
- Photons hit the solar cells of a solar panel, knocking electrons loose from their atoms.
- Those electrons of DC electricity flow through the circuit and into an inverter.
- The DC electricity is converted to AC electricity.
- This electricity is added to the energy grid to power homes and businesses.
Multiple solar panels can be wired together to make a solar array. The more panels you have, the more electricity you’ll generate.
Types of solar power
Solar power can be categorized into three types: utility-scale, commercial, and residential. Let’s take a look at each:
- Utility-scale solar power plants supply the power grid with large amounts of electricity, typically several megawatts — in line with small- to medium-sized coal- and gas-fired plants. Future solar power plants are expected to generate several hundred megawatts.
- Commercial solar provides power to businesses that install solar panels on vacant land, rooftops, or parking structures. The solar power generated supplements, and sometimes exceeds, the building’s power consumption. Often, the excess solar energy generated can then be sold back to the local utility.
- Residential solar comes from rooftop solar systems that generate power for individual homes. Homeowners typically need to supplement their solar power generation with traditional electricity to meet energy needs during the night or on cloudy days. This form of solar power is becoming more and more popular as material costs become less expensive.
How much does solar energy cost?
Though the cost differs between commercial solar and residential solar, varies from state to state, and is dependent upon many other factors, there’s good news across the board: the cost of solar continues to decrease as materials become more affordable and customer demand increases.
Also important to remember: the federal solar tax credit (also known as the investment tax credit, or ITC) reduces the cost of a commercial or residential solar energy system by 30 percent, with no value cap. Some states, utilities, and local governments also offer additional rebates and tax incentives for going solar.
Another plus? You don’t even need to install solar panels at your home or business to join the clean energy revolution. Some electricity programs let you power your home or business with up to 100% solar energy. This is accomplished through the purchase and retirement of renewable energy certificates (RECs) representing the environmental attributes associated with U.S. solar generation.
What are the benefits of solar energy?
The benefits of solar energy are numerous:
- Solar is clean and good for the earth. Solar power produces zero greenhouse gases. On top of that, it doesn’t require the vast amounts of water that fossil fuels do. Conserving water and keeping the air clean? That’s a win-win for us all.
- The cost to produce solar energy is rapidly declining. Solar power used to have a reputation of being too costly to make sense for most residential and commercial uses. But improved technology, lower hardware costs, and the demand for sustainable energy have steadily driven down the cost of solar panel systems in recent years.
- Solar energy is good for the economy. The future shines bright for solar — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 105% increase in solar photovoltaic installer jobs from 2016 to 2026, making it the #1 fastest-growing occupation in America. According to the Solar Jobs Census, the solar workforce increased from 93,000 jobs in 2010 to more than 250,000 jobs in 2017. As production costs decline and demand increases, jobs manufacturing solar panels, constructing power plants, and installing solar systems will keep increasing.
- Solar power can be profitable. Solar power for homes and businesses with rooftop solar installations often see reduced electricity bills. Plus, excess electricity generated can be exported back to the grid in exchange for payments or bill credits through various programs.
- The sun is a domestic energy source.
Unlike oil and natural gas, the nation’s solar supply is inexhaustible. As a country, we can generate solar power on our own soil without worrying about rising commodity prices, international political relations, or other global factors.
- Solar is good for business.
Leading with sustainability sets a positive tone for a business. According to a 2017 Cone Communications CSR Survey, 89% of customers are likely to switch to a company associated with a good cause (such as operating with clean energy!) given similar price and quality.
- Solar power is sustainable.
Bottom line: as long as the sun shines, we’ll have access to solar energy. Each individual has the power to help increase the demand for renewable energy generation in America.
Green Mountain Energy makes it simple to choose 100% clean energy made from the power of the sun. Together, we can help change the way power is made.
Join the clean energy revolution today! Find a solar plan with Green Mountain Energy.
The largest solar power plant in the world is located in California’s Mojave Desert and is made up of 173,500 mirrors that convert the sun’s heat into electricity
This page is for general educational purposes only. Green Mountain Energy product offerings do not include all of the renewable sources shown.