Energy can be harnessed directly from the sun, even in cloudy weather. Solar energy is used worldwide and is increasingly popular for generating electricity or heating and desalinating water. Solar power is generated in two main ways:
Photovoltaics (PV), also called solar cells, are electronic devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity. The modern solar cell is likely an image most people would recognise – they are in the panels installed on houses and in calculators. They were invented in 1954 at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States. Today, PV is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy technologies, and is ready to play a major role in the future global electricity generation mix.
Solar PV installations can be combined to provide electricity on a commercial scale, or arranged in smaller configurations for mini-grids or personal use. Using solar PV to power mini-grids is an excellent way to bring electricity access to people who do not live near power transmission lines, particularly in developing countries with excellent solar energy resources.
The cost of manufacturing solar panels has plummeted dramatically in the last decade, making them not only affordable but often the cheapest form of electricity. Solar panels have a lifespan of roughly 30 years and come in a variety of shades depending on the type of material used in manufacturing.
Concentrated solar power (CSP), uses mirrors to concentrate solar rays. These rays heat fluid, which creates steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity. CSP is used to generate electricity in large-scale power plants.
A CSP power plant usually features a field of mirrors that redirect rays to a tall thin tower. One of the main advantages of a CSP power plant over a solar PV power plant is that it can be equipped with molten salts in which heat can be stored, allowing electricity to be generated after the sun has set.