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Solar 101

ENERGY FROM LIGHT
 
The idea that you can make something from nothing has captivated mankind since the beginning of time. One need only do a cursory search for historical attempts to turn lead into gold to see that man has always lusted after the proverbial free lunch. In some cases, however, man has succeeded. When it comes to producing electricity from sunlight, for example, man has definitely achieved that goal. Enter the humble solar panel Ė to the uninitiated, itís a hunk of glass and metal that has no moving parts Ė it just sits there. Fueled by that great big ball of hydrogen in the sky, it magically produces electricity by doing absolutely nothing at all.
 
Well actually it does do something, something quite ingenious. Inherently obvious is that sunís rays carry energy, and vast amounts of it. One need only spend time outside to see that the sunís rays do everything from fry eggs on the sidewalk to burn unwary sunbathers if the season is right. Itís this same energy that is converted to electricity within a solar panel. The classic panel is essentially a collection of pure silicon cells which harness a phenomenon known as photovoltaic effect to produce energy. It works like this: photons of light strike the solar cell and excite the electrons therein. The motion of these electrons causes energy to be released in the form of electricity, which emerges from the panel in the form of DC (Direct Current) voltage, like your car battery, for example.
 
Solar panels are ubiquitous in their usage, being used to power everything from dime store calculators to entire towns, and everything in between. Itís rare to not see one when cruising about a modern city. The ability to convert the sunís rays into electricity isnít exactly new technology; French scientist Henri Becquerel discovered the aforementioned photovoltaic effect in 1839. solar PV panels in their current form really came into use around 1950, but they were far too expensive for the average person to use and were limited to industrial, scientific, and military uses. As the methods and materials used to make the panels became cheaper, they exploded into widespread use.
 
Current solar technology has grown from itís infancy to a mature, proven technology. The ability to grow silicon crystals of a sufficient size so as to be powerful and cheap enough has ceased to become the limiting factor in photovoltaic construction, with most manufacturers moving away from crystalline technology and towards thin film PV technology made from far cheaper elements. solar panels are now light enough to be mounted just about anywhere, and powerful enough so as to not require football field sized panels. Modern solar panels are also far more efficient than older models, which needed direct sunlight to perform at their peak: the newest designs are quite happy to produce far more voltage on even indirect sunlight meaning that the panels can be used in climes not known for being overly sunny.

THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME TO ME
But there are actually four different types of photovoltaic panels. Monocrystalline panels are the types of panels most people visualize when they think of PV. As the name implies, each sell is composed of a single piece of silicon, which gives them an extremely high efficiency rate but at an increased expense. Polycrystalline panels decrease the cost by adding smaller and thus less expensive crystals, but at the price of reduced efficiency. String ribbon panels are a variation of the polycrystalline method of producing crystals and have the same efficiency rates while reducing the cost of the panels since each cell is made up of thin ribbons of silicon. The final type of PV panel is the amorphous silicon panel, which is the lowest producing type of panel out there since they use a thin film of silicon applied over metal instead of a true silicon crystal. There are plusses and minuses to each type, and final selection depends on the desired usage.
 
WHY WOULD I WANT ONE?
Photovoltaic panels are extremely common for things like new home construction or retrofits where the panels can be used to shave a significant amount of money from a homeís power bill. In a grid tie scenario, where the home is already tied to grid electric power, a set of efficient panels can actually drive your electric meter backwards generating a credit for the home as excess power is cycled back into the grid. There are, however, some more interesting and lesser known uses of PV panels Ė and they really excel where there is no other source of electricity available. Ocean crossing sailboats use solar panels to keep their navigation systems functioning for days on end without starting the engines, while smaller vessels use PV panels to keep the batteries topped off in cases where shore power is unavailable, like distant moorings. Recreational vehicles use panels to operate the DC power systems in the motor home without having to plug in Ė systems like interior lights and toilets. Off-road vehicles are also beginning to utilize PV panels, most notably light and flexible thin film panels to charge cell phones and radios during long treks away from civilization. Remote cabins and retreats are a perfect usage of PV panels Ė often times hard wiring electricity is impossible at any price if the cabin is remote enough Ė yet a roof full of solar panels, if sized correctly to the cabinís systems, can more than meet the demand, all the while remaining off the grid, free from unsightly power lines and their accompanying bills all the while maintaining anonymity and independence. Even individuals are embracing solar technology, which now allows hikers to quickly deploy a flexible panel to charge electronic equipment on a hiking trail or campsite- literally in the middle of nowhere.
 
Industrial and commercial applications for solar panels are manifold: Call boxes located on remote stretches of highway stay charged and functional with a small PV array. Traffic signals and remote sensors also use panels to function efficiently and perennially where itís impractical to run power. Of course satellites and space vehicles were some of the first places solar panels were used, and are still used today; the International Space Station keeps all of its life support and sustainment systems active for years on end using photovoltaics: at any given time, six astronauts depend on this power to keep them alive 240 miles above the surface of the earth. The Mars rover also functions hundreds of thousands of miles away from home, powered by a set of high efficiency PV panels.
 
THE SOLAR EDGE
Thereís simply nothing out there like PV panels where clean, noiseless, affordable, and maintenance free power is needed anywhere on the globe. Over the years, efficiencies have risen while costs have fallen. The next closest technology is miles behind solar power: Wind turbines. Even the most cursory look at a wind turbine reveals an unsightly structure, dozens of moving parts and their accompanying maintenance, and most importantly the need for consistent wind. Modern solar panels, by contrast, are providing more power in the shade than they used to in direct sunlight only thirty years ago. Whether to augment an existing homeís efficiency, save a few dollars, or to provide power for a location where itís impossible to hard wire, solar panels are the technology of choice. Set them and forget them, and watch them deliver reliable power for years to come.

 

 
   
 
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