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What is Solar Power? - Uses, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:07 What is Solar Power?
  • 0:42 Passive Solar Power
  • 1:21 Active Solar Power
  • 2:10 Pros of Solar Power
  • 2:56 Cons of Solar Power
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

The sun provides us with a constant energy source. In this video lesson, you'll learn how we can harness solar power from the sun. We'll also take a look at the pros and cons of this renewable energy resource.

What Is Solar Power?

Sunlight is quite possibly the most important form of energy available to us on Earth. It warms our planet, which makes life possible. Plants use it as food when they photosynthesize. They turn sunlight into chemical energy, which then provides us with energy when we eat the plants.

Solar energy can also be harnessed as a renewable energy power source. Renewable energy resources are energy sources that regenerate in a short amount of time, allowing them to be used over and over again. There are two main ways that we can harness solar power: passively and actively.

Passive solar power is when solar energy is collected passively through absorption. Most often, this is achieved when buildings are designed to maximize their absorption of sunlight. Passive solar power takes advantage of what's already there - buildings already sit in direct sunlight, so why not put them to work? This would be like you going to stand in the sun to warm up on a cold day. You'll get warm just standing out there, but you'll get even warmer if you put on dark clothing. Because you can build on what's already available, this is a fairly effective and efficient way to utilize solar power.

In contrast, active solar power is when solar energy is actively focused, moved, or stored with technological devices. These devices not only collect the solar power reaching Earth but work hard to maximize its potential by transporting it as electricity or storing it for later use. Solar energy can be magnified when it is collected over a large area and then concentrated into a smaller area. A satellite dish on a house works the same way - the dish itself is wide in order to collect the signal and then that signal gets focused in a central point and sent to your TV. When solar power is actively collected, it can be concentrated and magnified so much that it provides a power source for thousands of homes and other buildings in the area.

Pros and Cons of Solar Power

Solar power provides many benefits as an energy source:

  • Because the sun will be around for another four to five billion years, there's really no end to the energy it will supply.
  • Solar power is also fairly inexpensive, because, as mentioned before, it can be collected by structures that are already in place. Small changes (like putting on dark clothing to maximize your heat collection in the sun) can make a big difference. Even the technology that actively collects and harnesses solar power is becoming more widespread and less expensive to produce.
  • Solar power is also a no-emissions form of energy production. Unlike burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, solar power doesn't create air and water pollution.

Solar power does have its downsides, though:

  • While solar power itself doesn't produce pollution, the technology and products that collect solar power do require the use of fossil fuels in production. However, once the collection devices are up and running, no further emissions are produced.
  • A major issue with solar power is that the sun has to be shining in order to collect its energy. Some places are just sunnier than others, so not everyone can harness the power of the sun in the same way. Places like Washington State would have a much harder time harnessing enough solar power throughout the year than somewhere like Florida, which is known as the 'Sunshine State' for a reason! However, even daily or seasonal variation in sunlight can affect how much solar power is collected. So, while it's a powerful source of energy, it's not always consistent or reliable, and a backup may be needed.
  • The biggest disadvantage of solar power is the upfront cost of solar collecting products. While manufacturing costs have gone down in recent years, the upfront costs are still pretty high compared with other energy resources, like fossil fuels. It's like building a building versus keeping the building up and running. Constructing the building takes a lot of time and money up front, but once it's built, it doesn't cost that much to maintain it. However, those upfront costs can deter you from building in the first place if they're high enough!

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