The first things that often come to mind when one mentions solar power are calculators and solar roof panels. However, as the world’s energy consciousness increases and science keeps pace with it, there are more and more solar options available. There are two primary types of solar energy with many different offshoots from these two trunks of the solar energy tree.

Photo-Voltaic Panels

First are photo-voltaic panels, which is what people normally think of when solar energy comes to mind. There are many sizes of these, from the very small ones found in solar powered watches, to the tremendous panels that can be seen gleaming from roofs across the world.

The photo-voltaic panel, or PV, converts sunlight into energy through a complex system of panels, power converter, and electrical interconnections. The home solar  panel is typically comprised of many individual solar cells wired in a series. Each solar cell is very low voltage, so the panel will contain an appropriate number of cells needed to power the device or house, or to store in a plant for public consumption. Outdoor PV panels require additional equipment such as a mounting system and trackers that allow the panel to follow the sun as it moves across the sky.

A system that does not have a connection to the grid, but still needs to store power for use when the sun is not available, will also need a battery to hold power. Homesteaders and survivalists will often use this design. Many will also incorporate the second type of solar power available into their home energy system. This type uses the thermal power of the sun for energy to heat water or air, although it can also be converted directly into electricity.

Solar Thermal Energy

The most common use of solar thermal energy is to heat water in pools or water heaters. The collectors used for solar thermal energy (STE) are separated into three classifications by the United States Energy Information Administration. Low temperature and medium temperature collectors are both flat plates and are generally used to heat water or air. Pools require a low temperature collector to raise the ambient temperature to approximately 75 degrees. Water heaters require a temperature 30 degrees higher; medium temperature collectors should be used with water heaters in either a business or residential settings.

High temperature collectors use a reflective/refractive surface such as a lens or mirror to concentrate sunlight and these are generally used to generate electricity for storage or consumption. These are less common than the PV panels mentioned above, however they are more efficient and those numbers are changing as STE comes into greater popularity. These temperature collectors can also be used to heat air as mentioned earlier.

Solar chimneys, for example, have been in use since ancient times. The air inside the chimney is heated as the structure warms in the sun and this creates an updraft which pulls the heated air through a building. These types of heating units are still very common in the Middle East. In the West, however, glazed and unglazed solar air heat collectors are more popular. STE can be used in a variety of ways throughout the home or business to provide more functionality and comfort.

With a little creativity, thermal energy can be brought into the consumer’s life to reduce the cost of living and lower bills throughout the energy spectrum. There are a variety of sites available on the internet offering tips, instructions, and even blueprints that can guide the average consumer in incorporating solar power into their daily life. A large percentage of the cost of living involves heating and cooling homes and water. Imagine the improvement if heating and cooling needs were accomplished through free power shining down every day in the form of the sun.