July 20, 2015
What Ever Happened to Solar Power? It’s Flying Overhead!
For a while, it seemed like the phrase "solar power" was in the news everyday. It promised to be the fuel alternative of the future, giving low-cost energy to everything from homes to automobiles. Fast-forward to today, and we hear about all types of alternative energy ... so what happened to solar energy? What is it currently being used for, and what does the future hold for this "free" power supply?
Solar power has been in use in one form or another since as early as the 7th century, when it was used to create fires. From a more practical, modern view, the ability to actually harness solar power and convert it to a useable energy source didn"t occur until the 1960s, after Bell Labs invented the first silicon-based photovoltaic solar cell. It would take another decade before these solar cells were commercially viable and began to make their way into the marketplace.
There are several types of solar panels. At its core, a solar panel"s job is to take in sunlight and transform it into some form of useable energy. In the case of solar thermal panels, the sunlight is used for heating water for cleaning purposes and to warm water. Solar photovoltaic panels, also known as PV panels, take energy from the sun and convert it into electricity, a use most people are more familiar with.
Modern Uses for Solar Power
Today, solar power has many applications across a plethora of industries. One of the simplest and most widespread uses of solar power is in lighting. You have no doubt seen lighted pathways and gardens in your neighborhood after dark. Instead of relying on electricity generated from an extension cord, outdoor lighting typically uses solar panels to collect energy from the sun, which is then used to power LEDs at night.
On a slightly grander scale, some homeowners are opting to power their entire home with solar energy, using solar panels to collect sunlight and then convert it (through a series of processes) into AC power, which you can use to power all of the lights and appliances in your home.
Of course, not all of the uses for solar power have to do with a home. Recently, an airplane dubbed the Solar Impulse has undertaken the task of becoming the world's first completely fuel-free, solar-powered airplane to fly around the world. While the airplane was just grounded due to technical issues before it could finish its flight, it has pushed the boundaries of the possibilities solar technology presents for the transportation and aviation industries.
Future Uses for Solar Power
As the world's fuel supply continues to dwindle and the demand keeps growing, the need for alternative energy sources such as solar power will only continue to increase. Even now, countries such as France are starting to jump on the solar bandwagon, as they insist that every new building either has a solar roof or is covered in plants. Strategies such as this will not only have a positive effect on the environment but will also help lower the cost of solar panels, making them more commercially viable.
Future applications of solar tech will continue to find their way into the home and transportation industries. Expect to see the rise of solar cars, airplanes, and even space shuttles. The robotics industry, too, will likely turn to solar power to meet the energy needs of industrial robots, reducing energy waste and energy costs in manufacturing plants.
So while you may not hear the phrases "solar power" or "solar energy" as frequently as you used to, know that the technology is slowly integrating itself into our daily lives and will be a big part of our future in the years to come.