What is it? Do we really understand the hype? We all hear about this magical alternative energy, but what we need is to understand it’s functions in our every day lives. Especially in our homes.
If you said solar energy is power harnessed from the sun, whether that be light or heat, you’d be correct. To some it’s also seen as a big investment, too big to consider, despite the obvious benefits. When most people think of solar power, they think of solar panels. They think of solar panels on the roof of a house. But what about the solar farms? What about solar hot water? Understandably, solar panels might seem out of reach for an individual. However, we should be pushing toward a future powered by the sun.
Improvements in solar and battery technology are making amazing things possible. More and more people are living ‘off-the-grid’. Surviving entirely on what they produce. These are extreme scenarios, however. A lot of time, effort and often money go into making those situations possible. A lot of understanding and care about what energy goes where in the home. For someone like you or I, who just want to save a few dollars, or create a more comfortable home, or ‘do our bit for the environment’, there are options that aren’t too radical and complex.
First of all, know that I won’t be talking about solar architecture, artificial photosynthesis and solar thermal electricity. Now that I’ve dropped some big words, let’s move on to what we can both relate to.
Taking advantage of solar means taking advantage of two things, heat and light. I’m sure you can already see the relationship this has with our homes. Now also understand that we can utilise solar in two ways, actively and passively. Actively means to convert solar energy into another useful form of energy, such as electricity. Passively means to collect, store and distribute solar energy in it’s existing form, be it heat or light.
Looking closely at active solar, there are a multitude of applications. I’m going to focus on the basics, in this case turning the sun’s energy into electricity and storing that in battery banks. What’s involved in a simple set up are three things: solar panels, a charge controller, batteries and possibly an inverter.
The solar panels are what capture the sun’s energy, these are to be positioned in such a way that their exposure to the sun is as great as can be.
The charge controller is what ensures safe and efficient charging of the batteries. For examples, batteries cannot be overcharged, and a charge controller prevents this from happening.
Batteries are obvious. They contain the energy in a functional package that we can tap into at any time.
Now inverters can be considered depending on the context of your application. If this solar setup was located in a van, chances are you’re just using it to power some lights and a radio. If they run off DC current, then you don’t need an inverter. However if you want to power home appliances such as fridges, microwaves and televisions, you will need one. An inverter outputs an AC current.
Let’s also talk about passive solar. Do you remember what that was? Utilising the energy in it’s existing form. As an example we’ll look at heating water.
Take a long hose and spread it out in your garden during a hot day. Ensure there is water sitting along the entire length and let it bask in the sunlight. When you turn on the house a while later, you’ll find the water that’s been sitting in the exposed sections of hose is likely much warmer than that which has been underground or in shade. I’m sure you understand what I’m alluding to but: the sun heated that water.
Imagine if that hose was black. Black conducts heat much better than other colours. Imagine if you spread out a smaller diameter hose, efficiently increasing the exposed surface area. The water would heat up much faster.
Passive solar doesn’t just refer to heat, but also light. Strategically designed homes take advantage of nature and open themselves up to the big lightbulb in the sky, instead of switching on their tiny compact-incandescent-LED-globe-things. They reflect the light internally, meaning even areas that aren’t in direct line of sight with the sun can be well lit.
So those are some options for you. Though you may be wondering, why?
– Because solar can save you money!
– Because not only is it sustainable, it’s renewable! You won’t run out!
– It requires little maintenance! So easy even I can take advantage of it!
– We’re always improving the technology! This means efficiency is increasing while production costs are decreasing!
Are you convinced? If so, good. Now go change the world. If not, then tell me why. ‘Solar panels are too expensive’ is not a reason. Go paint a water bottle black and leave it outside. Then have the least satisfying but most environmentally friendly shower of your life.
Don’t forget though, research is important. By all means, jump in to the world of solar with two feet. But make sure you know what you want to get out of it. Do you want to power a camper-van? Do you want to heat your swimming pool? Figure that out first, and you’ll have no problem finding the perfect solution.
Sunny skies and warm showers,
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