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Uses of Solar Energy (8 Top Solar Energy Applications)

The sun is a source of life on our planet. For around four and half billion years, it has given and continues to give us light and heat—the two traditional forms of energy.

As early as the 7th century B.C., the Romans and Greeks used magnifying glasses to concentrate sunlight onto a point and light fire for rituals. The use of passive solar energy is also reported in many other civilizations, including Egyptian, Hindu, Persian, and others. 

But those were only the basic ways of harnessing solar energy. The extensive research and development after the 1970s in the solar sector have allowed us to utilize solar energy for various other purposes.

Let’s shed light on some of the uses of solar energy today. 

Top uses of solar energy

Here is a list of some of the uses of solar energy, with solar electricity at the top. But this is not the only use of solar energy. There are many others, and that is what we are exploring today.

1. Solar electricity 

Solar electricity is one of the most notable uses of solar energy. Due to the declining solar prices, wide-range incentives, and financial and environmental benefits, solar electricity is growing rapidly all over the world. In the United States, solar power has experienced an average annual growth of 33% only in the last decade. 

Compared to 0.34 gigawatts (GW) in 2008, the total solar capacity of the United States is roughly 97 GW today, about 3% of our total electricity needs. But this is expected to be 30% by the end of 2035—to achieve this target, we will have to install nearly 125 GW of solar power every year. 

What sets solar electricity apart from other forms of energy is its accessibility and affordability—unlike conventional forms of energy, solar power accords more freedom and control to people. You can install solar panels on your rooftop or ground, and you will have solar electricity powering your home or business. 

But it is not just limited to private buildings. There is also utility-scale solar electricity, where electricity is generated for large-scale consumption. For example, Ivanpah Solar Power Facility is a concentrated solar power plant in California, the largest in the world, with a gross capacity of 392 megawatts (MW). 

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2. Solar water heating 

Another application of solar energy is solar water heating. There are two types of solar water heating mechanisms, active water heater systems and passive water heater systems. 

Active water heating system is further divided into two categories. 

Direct circulation systems 

In direct circulation systems, pumps circulate household water through solar collectors where it is heated. Once heated, it is then pumped back to the plumbing system and ready for use. Direct circulation systems work efficiently in areas where water rarely freezes. 

Indirect circulation systems

In indirect circulation systems, non-freezing liquid and heat exchangers are used. The liquid is circulated through solar collectors and heat exchangers, where heat is transferred from exchangers to water. These systems are popular in regions where water freezes, for instance, in Alaska or parts of Canada. 

Like active systems, passive water heating system is also divided into two categories. 

Integral collector-storage (ICS) passive system 

This is the simplest yet efficient water heating system. In ICS, the water storage tank is covered with a transparent material and exposed to the sun. The sun heats the water pretty much like it would heat water kept in the open. These systems also work only in regions where water does not freeze. 

Thermosiphon systems

In the thermosiphon systems, the solar collector is kept below the tank. When the water is heated, it naturally rises to the tank, and the cold water flows in. The heated water is then fed to the plumbing system. 

3. Solar transportation 

Still in its fancy, solar transportation is a revolutionary step towards achieving sustainability in the transportation of all sorts. Imagine ships, airplanes, trains, and cars all running solar power! It is no longer a pipedream as it used to be a decade ago. Buses, ships, cars, and even airplanes are running on solar energy. 

For example, Adelaide, Australia, has introduced solar buses named Tindo, which are available for public use. They do not have solar panels installed on the buses but are charged by solar panels on top of Adelaide Central Bus Station. Similarly, Hyundai has introduced the New Sonata Hybrid, which is run by solar panels mounted on the car. There is Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered entirely by solar panels. Solar Impulse 2 has already completed the world circumnavigation in 505 days, out of which it remained in flight for 23 days over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. 

Solar transportation is still going through its initial stages, but looking at the prospects, we can safely predict that solar transportation is the future. 

4. Solar heating 

Heating homes through solar energy is nothing new—it has been practiced for millennia. Like solar water heating, there are two ways you can heat your home through solar energy: active heating and passive heating. 

Passive solar heating 

You don’t need any solar panels or other solar equipment in passive solar heating. All you need to do is design your home to capture maximum sunlight during the day to keep your house warm for the night. For example, you can build rooms with sun-facing large windows to let the sunshine reach the inside of your room. You can also employ other methods, such as applying airtight, thick insulation to trap the heat for longer. 

The ancient Greeks employed the same principles and built ‘sunrooms’ in their homes to trap sunlight and warm their rooms. 

Active solar heating 

In active solar heating, you will need mechanical devices, such as solar collectors, pumps, storage tanks, and air or liquid, to heat your home. Usually, a solar collector is installed on the rooftop, with pumps and storage tanks. The solar collector collects sunlight, which is then fed into the air or liquid pipes. This heated air or liquid is then carried directly to the home. 

But if the heat is not needed at that moment, it can also be stored in a storage tank which can be used for heating when required. 

5. Solar-powered ventilation fans

Ventilation fans, even if run on grid electricity, are a good idea, as they take the burden off your cooling system. But if you want to save further on your energy, you can install solar-powered ventilation fans. They come with small roof-mounted solar panels and work best for attic spaces, pet houses, garages, sheds, etc. 

6. Portable solar 

Portable solar power is another widely-used application of solar energy. Some portable solar panels come in waterproof kits, making them fit for adverse weather conditions. Depending upon the requirements, you can carry portable solar panels with you while you travel and get your electronic gadgets charged on the go.

Other than charging your gadgets, you can also power your RV, cook food, heat water, power a small fridge, etc., through portable solar panels. Some construction sites where electricity is not readily available use portable solar panels to power their workstations. 

7. Solar lighting  

Solar lighting is an affordable way to add to the aesthetics of your outdoor lawns and gardens. Stand-alone LED lights are used for landscape lighting without requiring additional wiring. These solar fixtures have small batteries attached to them, which are charged by solar cells during the day and have enough capacity to keep the light powered throughout the night. 

Similarly, on a bigger scale, solar energy is used in street lighting. But it works best in regions that receive ample sunlight during the day. 

8. Other uses of solar energy 

Apart from the uses mentioned above, there are many more areas where we could exploit solar energy, such as: 

  • Using solar energy for cooking 
  • Solar energy for heating your swimming pole
  • Simply charging batteries with solar panels 
  • Using solar energy for agriculture in remote areas 
  • Drawing water from wells with solar-power water pumps 

This is not an exhaustive list of the uses of solar energy. Solar energy is expanding, both vertically and horizontally, and we will see more of it in the future. And not necessarily because it is more affordable, but also because it is cleaner, greener, and can heal our environment.

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