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Solar energy in depth: How it's used today, and arguments for and against


Today’s article is a guest post by Barbara Young, who writes on RV solar panels in her personal hobby site Her work is devoted to helping people save energy using solar power to lower CO2 emissions and energy dependency.

The solar water heater became popular at this time in Florida, California, and the Southwest. The industry started in the early 1920s and was in full swing just before The second World War. This growth lasted until before mid-1950s, when low-cost propane had become the primary fuel for heating American homes.

The public and world governments remained largely indifferent to the possibilities of solar energy until the oil shortages of the1970s. Today, people use solar power to heat buildings and water and to generate electricity.

How do we use solar energy today?

Solar energy is used in a number of different ways, of course. There are two standard kinds of solar power:

  • Solar thermal energy collects the sun’s warmth through water or an anti-freeze (glycol) mixture
  • Solar photovoltaic energy converts the sun’s radiation to usable electricity

Here are the five most practical and popular ways solar power is employed:

  1. Small portable solar photovoltaic systems. We see these used everywhere, from calculators to solar garden tools. Portable units can be used for things like RV appliances, while single-panel systems can be used traffic signs and remote-monitoring stations.
  2. Solar pool heating. Running water in direct-circulation systems through a solar collector is an extremely practical way to heat water for your pool or hot tub.
  3. Thermal glycol energy to heat water. In this method (indirect circulation), glycol is heated by sunshine and the heat is then transferred to water in a warm water tank. This process of collecting the sun’s energy is more practical now than ever before. In areas as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, solar thermal to heat water is economically sound. It can pay for itself in 36 months or less.
  4. Integrating solar photovoltaic energy into your home or office power. In lots of parts of the world, solar photovoltaics are an economically feasible approach to supplement the power of your property. In Japan, photovoltaics are competitive with other kinds of power. In the United States, new incentive programs make this form of solar power ever more viable in many states. A frequent and practical method of integrating solar energy into the power of your home or business is through the usage of building integrated solar photovoltaics.
  5. Large independent photovoltaic systems. For those who have enough sun power at your site, you might be able to go off grid. You may also integrate or hybridize your solar power system with wind power or other kinds of sustainable energy to stay “off the grid.”

What are the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy?

In favor of solar energy:

  • Heating our homes with oil or propane or using electricity from power plants running with fossil fuels is a reason for climate change and climate disruption. Solar power, on the contrary, is clean and environmentally-friendly.
  • Solar hot-water heaters require little maintenance, and their initial investment could be recovered within a relatively small amount of time.
  • Solar hot-water heaters can work in almost any climate, even very cold ones. Simply choose the right system for your climate: drainback, thermosyphon, batch-ICS, etc.
  • Maintenance costs of solar powered systems are minimal and also the warranties large.
  • Financial incentives (United States, Canada, European states…) can help to eliminate the cost of the first investment in solar technologies. The U.S. government, as an example, offers tax credits for solar systems certified by by the SRCC (Solar Rating and Certification Corporation), which amount to 30 percent of the investment (2009-2016 period).

On the other hand:

  • The first investment in solar water heaters or in photovoltaic electric systems is greater than that required by conventional electric and gas heaters systems.
  • The payback period of solar PV-electric systems is high, as well as those of solar space heating or solar cooling (only the solar domestic hot-water heating payback is short or relatively short).
  • Solar water heating does not support a direct combination with radiators (including baseboard ones).
  • Some air cooling (solar space heating and the solar cooling systems) are very pricey and rather untested technologies: Solar AC hasn’t been a truly economical option, though it’s changing.
  • The efficiency of solar powered systems is rather influenced by sunlight resources. It’s in colder climates, where heating or electricity needs are higher, that the efficiency is smaller.