With the rising demand for energy and a “green economy”, many people have raised an eyebrow when faced with the topic of solar energy. Solar panels (or more specifically, photovoltaic cells) are literally pieces of material which have been treated to absorb light and convert it directly to electricity. No moving parts are involved, but the efficiency has peaked around 43.5% in the laboratory.
If you take a moment to think about it, plants do a very similar thing—they convert sunlight to chemical energy (except the efficiency of this process is typically 1%). Now, think of a car, which does having moving parts. They will burn fossil fuels (dead plants) with efficiencies typically around 25%. In other words, our conventional mode of transportation is really using stored sunlight with efficiencies that cannot exceed 1%x25%=0.25%. And that’s assuming the process of plants becoming fossil fuels is perfectly efficient.
It is not an understatement to say that photovoltaic technology is the only technology which uses our modern understanding of quantum mechanics in an elegantly designed device with the ability to capture our sun’s energy and convert it directly into electricity. And electricity is arguably the most useful form of energy in modern society.
This advanced technology has powered the satellites that orbit our earth and explore our solar system, and now it has begun to reach a point where it is actually economically viable to use it as a means of generating electricity in some parts of the world.
Unless you work in the energy sector, it is very likely that you either have questions about solar power or you don’t even know what questions to ask. Well, here are two to get you started.
1) What is a solar cell?
A solar cell is a device that absorbs light. According to modern science, light is made of particles called photons. These photons “energize” electrons within the device which causes a voltage across two terminals. The cell can then be used as a source of power for electronics in the exact same way batteries are used. The only difference is, a solar cell will only work while light is shining and batteries only work while there is still chemical energy still inside.
2) As an Ontarian, how can I get photovoltaic cells for my home?
Currently, the government of Ontario provides subsidies for installing photovoltaic cells. If you are homeowner who wants to put solar panels on your rooftop, it is suggested that you check out the MicroFIT program.
Essentially, the way it works is if you install panels through this program, you enter a 20 year contract where the government will treat you like a (very small) utility company and pay you for the power you produce. Although the program is currently being updated, the last published rate was 80.2 cents/kWh.
It is quite clear that the sun has power... a power like no other.