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How Does Solar Work?

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Explore the basics of solar radiation, photovoltaic and concentrating solar-thermal power technologies, electrical grid systems integration, and the non-hardware aspects (soft costs) of solar energy.

The amount of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in an hour and a half is enough to handle the entire world’s energy consumption for a full year. Solar technologies convert sunlight into electrical energy either through photovoltaic (PV) panels or through mirrors that concentrate solar radiation. This energy can be used to generate electricity or be stored in batteries or thermal storage.

Below, you can find resources and information on the basics of solar radiation, photovoltaic and concentrating solar-thermal power technologies, electrical grid systems integration, and the non-hardware aspects (soft costs) of solar energy. You can also learn more about how to go solar and the solar energy industry. In addition, you can dive deeper into solar energy and learn about how  the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office is driving innovative research and development in these areas.

Solar Energy 101

Solar radiation is light – also known as electromagnetic radiation – that is emitted by the sun. While every location on Earth receives some sunlight over a year, the amount of solar radiation that reaches any one spot on the Earth’s surface varies. Solar technologies capture this radiation and turn it into useful forms of energy

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There are two main types of solar energy technologies—photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP). 

Photovoltaics Basics

You’re likely most familiar with PV, which is utilized in solar panels. When the sun shines onto a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the PV cells in the panel. This energy creates electrical charges that move in response to an internal electrical field in the cell, causing electricity to flow.

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Concentrating Solar-Thermal Power Basics

Concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) systems use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat, which can then be used to produce electricity or stored for later use. It is used primarily in very large power plants.

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Systems Integration Basics

Solar energy technology doesn’t end with electricity generation by PV or CSP systems. These solar energy systems must be integrated into homes, businesses, and existing electrical grids with varying mixtures of traditional and other renewable energy sources.

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Soft Costs Basics

A number of non-hardware costs, known as soft costs, also impact the cost of solar energy. These costs include permitting, financing, and installing solar, as well as the expenses solar companies incur to acquire new customers, pay suppliers, and cover their bottom line. For rooftop solar energy systems, soft costs represent the largest share of total costs.

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Going Solar Basics

Solar energy can help to reduce the cost of electricity, contribute to a resilient electrical grid, create jobs and spur economic growth, generate back-up power for nighttime and outages when paired with storage, and operate at similar efficiency on both small and large scales.

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Going Solar Basics

Solar energy can help to reduce the cost of electricity, contribute to a resilient electrical grid, create jobs and spur economic growth, generate back-up power for nighttime and outages when paired with storage, and operate at similar efficiency on both small and large scales.

LEARN MORE:

Solar Industry Basics

Solar energy systems come in all shapes and sizes. Residential systems are found on rooftops across the United States, and businesses are also opting to install solar panels. Utilities, too, are building large solar power plants to provide energy to all customers connected to the grid. 

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Dive Deeper

Learn more about the innovative research the Solar Energy Technologies Office is doing in these areas.

In addition to this basic information about solar energy, you can find more solar energy information resources here.

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