The ultimate source of much of the world's energy is the sun, which provides the earth with light, heat and radiation. While many technologies derive fuel from one form of solar energy or another, there are also technologies that directly transform the sun's energy into electricity.
The sun bathes the earth in a steady, enormous flow of radiant energy that far exceeds what the world requires for electricity fuel.
Since generating electricity directly from sunlight does not deplete any of the earth's natural resources and supplies the earth with energy continuously, solar energy is a renewable source of electricity generation. Solar energy is our earth's primary source of renewable energy.
There are two different approaches to generate electricity from the sun: photovoltaic (PV) and solar-thermal technologies.
* Initially developed for the space program over 30 years ago, PV, like a fuel cell, relies upon chemical reactions to generate electricity. PV cells are small, square shaped semiconductors manufactured in thin film layers from silicon and other conductive materials. When sunlight strikes the PV cell, chemical reactions release electrons, generating electric current. The small current from individual PV cells, which are installed in modules, can power individual homes and businesses or can be plugged into the bulk electricity grid.
* Solar-thermal technologies are, more or less, a traditional electricity generating technology. They use the sun's heat to create steam to drive an electric generator. Parabolic trough systems, like those operating in southern California, use reflectors to concentrate sunlight to heat oil which in turn creates steam to drive a standard turbine.
Two other solar-thermal technologies are nearing commercial status. Parabolic dish systems concentrate sunlight to heat gaseous hydrogen or helium or liquid sodium to create pressurized gas or steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity. Central receiver systems feature mirrors that reflect sunlight on to a large tower filled with fluid that when heated creates steam to drive a turbine.
What are the environmental impacts?
PV systems operate without producing air, water or solid wastes.
When constructed as grid-connected central station systems, they require significant land, which can impact existing ecosystems. Nevertheless, most PV installations come in the form of distributed systems that use little or no land since the panels are installed on buildings.
Manufacturing PV cells involves the generation of some hazardous materials. Nonetheless, appropriate handling of these small quantities of hazardous material reduces risks of exposure to humans and to the environment.
Like PV, solar-thermal technologies generate zero air emissions, though some emissions are created during the manufacture of both technologies. Water use for solar thermal plants is similar to amounts needed for a comparably sized coal or nuclear plants.
The biggest concern with solar technologies may be land use...
...since five acres of land are often needed for each megawatt of capacity. PV can eliminate the land use impacts by integrating the generators into building construction, eliminating the need for dedicating land use to PV generation.