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What exactly is solar energy and how does it work?

Learn more about this renewable energy source.

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Steve Cicero/Getty Images

Solar energy is the world's most abundant resource, and it's increasingly being harnessed to power homes and businesses. While solar energy still makes up a small percentage of the electricity generated in the United States, it's growing. 

Solar energy presents a unique opportunity for individuals and business owners alike to save money on electricity while helping to protect the environment and reduce their carbon footprint. However, the high cost and long-term maintenance of solar panels continue to be a sticking point for many. Keep reading to learn what solar energy is, how it works and the pros and cons of using it.

What is solar energy?

Solar power is energy that is created by the sun and converted into usable energy that can provide electricity and heat. Solar energy is the cleanest form of energy and the most readily available. In fact, according to the US Department of Energy, enough sunlight strikes the earth's surface every hour and a half to power the entire world's energy consumption for a year.

How does solar energy work?

Technology allows us to harness solar energy in several different ways: photovoltaics, solar heating and cooling and concentrating solar power.

Photovoltaics is the form of solar energy that most of us are probably familiar with. It uses solar panels to capture the energy created by the sun. This energy is then converted into electricity, which can power homes, businesses and more.

Solar heating and cooling, also known as solar thermal, allows us to capture energy from the sun to heat and cool spaces. Just like using solar energy for electricity, using solar energy for heating and cooling reduces dependence on other energy sources that aren't as sustainable or environmentally friendly.

Concentrating solar power is the third way that the sun's energy can be harnessed and also relies on solar thermal energy. With this method, mirrors reflect and concentrate solar energy to be stored and used later. This is done at concentrating solar power plants.

A guide to residential solar power

Solar energy has become an increasingly popular source of electricity generation for homes and businesses in the United States, and that trend is only expected to continue.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are nearly 109 gigawatts of solar installed in the United States, which is enough to power 18.9 million homes. The US solar market has grown at a rate of about 42% per year over the past decade, and there are more than 3 million individual solar installations.

Luckily, solar power is more accessible than ever. There are plenty of companies that specialize in providing solar panels to homes and businesses. You can even buy solar panels at your local hardware store and either install them yourself or hire someone for professional installation.

Once you make the initial investment to install solar panels on your home, you can enjoy the financial and environmental savings for decades, but there are plenty of challenges associated with owning and maintaining solar panels.

Pros and cons of solar energy

Solar energy has some serious advantages for both consumers and the environment, but it's also important to discuss the downsides.

Pros of solar energy

  • Doesn't emit air pollutants and greenhouse gasses, meaning it's more environmentally friendly than traditional electricity generation.
  • Helps individuals and businesses reduce their energy bills by relying on solar energy to provide power.
  • Reduces the burden on the electricity grid, which benefits everyone, and even allows solar panel owners to sell their excess electricity back to the energy grid.
  • Sustainable, since solar panels last for many years and solar energy is a renewable resource that's more abundant and accessible than traditional energy sources.
  • Can be stored in solar batteries to be used later when the sun isn't shining.

Cons of solar energy

  • Requires a significant financial investment, which can make it inaccessible to many individuals and businesses.
  • Only effective if the sun is shining, meaning it's less useful during certain seasons or in certain regions where there's less sunlight.
  • May require many panels, depending on the amount of solar energy you hope to generate for your home or business.

The bottom line

Solar energy is the cleanest form of energy, and also happens to be the most abundant and accessible. People are increasingly harnessing the power to save money and reduce their environmental impact. Here are a few resources to help you get started with solar energy: