Solar Energy

Solar Energy

Solar energy technologies use the sun’s energy and light to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity, and even cooling, for homes, businesses, and industry. There are a variety of technologies that have been developed to take advantage of solar energy. These include: Photovoltaic (solar cell) Systems Solar cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Solar cells are often

Solar energy technologies use the sun’s energy and light to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity, and even cooling, for homes, businesses, and industry. There are a variety of technologies that have been developed to take advantage of solar energy.

These include:

Photovoltaic (solar cell) Systems

Solar cells convert sunlight directly into electricity. Solar cells are often used to power calculators and watches. They are made of semiconducting materials similar to those used in computer chips. When sunlight is absorbed by these materials, the solar energy knocks electrons loose from their atoms, allowing the electrons to flow through the material to produce electricity. This process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage) is called the photovoltaic (PV) effect.

Solar cells are typically combined into modules that hold about 40 cells; a number of these modules are mounted in PV arrays that can measure up to several meters on a side. These flat-plate PV arrays can be mounted at a fixed angle facing south, or they can be mounted on a tracking device that follows the sun, allowing them to capture the most sunlight over the course of a day. Several connected PV arrays can provide enough power for a household; for large electric utility or industrial applications, hundreds of arrays can be interconnected to form a single, large PV system.

Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. Thin film technology has
made it possible for solar cells to now double as rooftop shingles, roof tiles, building facades, or the glazing for skylights or atria. The solar cell version of items such as shingles offer the same protection and durability as ordinary
asphalt shingles.

Some solar cells are designed to operate with concentrated sunlight. These cells are built into concentrating collectors that use a lens to focus the sunlight onto the cells. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages compared with flat-plate PV arrays. The main idea is to use very little of the expensive semiconducting PV material while collecting as much sunlight as possible. But because the lenses must be pointed at the sun, the use of concentrating collectors is limited to the sunniest parts of the country. Some concentrating collectors are designed to be mounted on simple tracking devices, but most require sophisticated tracking devices, which further limit their use to electric utilities, industries, and large buildings.

Solar Hot Water

The shallow water of a lake is usually warmer than the deep water. That’s because the sunlight can heat the lake bottom in the shallow areas, which in turn, heats the water. It’s nature’s way of solar water heating. The sun can be used in basically the same way to heat water used in buildings and swimming pools.

Most solar water heating systems for buildings have two main parts: a solar collector and a storage tank. The most
common collector is called a flat-plate collector. Mounted on the roof, it consists of a thin, flat, rectangular box with a transparent cover that faces the sun. Small tubes run through the box and carry the fluid – either water or other fluid, such as an antifreeze solution – to be heated. The tubes are attached to an absorber plate, which is painted black to absorb the heat. As heat builds up in the collector, it heats the fluid passing through the tubes.

The storage tank then holds the hot liquid. It can be just a modified water heater, but it is usually larger and very well-insulated. Systems that use fluids other than water usually heat the water by passing it through a coil of tubing in the tank, which is full of hot fluid.

Solar water heating systems can be either active or passive, but the most common are active systems. Active systems rely on pumps to move the liquid between the collector and the storage tank, while passive systems rely on gravity and the tendency for water to naturally circulate as it is heated.

Solar Electricty

Many power plants today use fossil fuels as a heat source to boil water. The steam from the boiling water rotates a large turbine, which activates a generator that produces electricity. However, a new generation of power plants, with concentrating solar power systems, uses the sun as a heat source. There are three main types of concentrating solar power systems: parabolic-trough, dish/engine, and power tower.

Parabolic-trough systems concentrate the sun’s energy through long rectangular, curved (U-shaped) mirrors. The mirrors are tilted toward the sun, focusing sunlight on a pipe that runs down the center of the trough. This heats the oil flowing through the pipe. The hot oil then is used to boil water in a conventional steam generator to produce

A dish/engine system uses a mirrored dish (similar to a very large satellite dish). The dish-shaped surface collects and concentrates the sun’s heat onto a receiver, which absorbs the heat and transfers it to fluid within the engine. The heat causes the fluid to expand against a piston or turbine to produce mechanical power. The mechanical power
is then used to run a generator or alternator to produce electricity.

A power tower system uses a large field of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto the top of a tower, where a receiver sits. This heats molten salt flowing through the receiver. Then, the salt’s heat is used to generate electricity through a conventional steam generator. Molten salt retains heat efficiently, so it can be stored for days before being converted into electricity. That means electricity can be produced on cloudy days or even several hours after sunset.

Passive Solar Heating and Daylighting

Step outside on a hot and sunny summer day, and you’ll feel the power of solar heat and light. Today, many buildings are designed to take advantage of this natural resource through the use of passive solar heating and daylighting.

The south side of a building always receives the most sunlight. Therefore, buildings designed for passive solar heating usually have large, south-facing windows. Materials that absorb and store the sun’s heat can be built into the sunlit floors and walls. The floors and walls will then heat up during the day and slowly release heat at night, when the heat is needed most. This passive solar design feature is called direct gain.

Other passive solar heating design features include sunspaces and trombe walls. A sunspace (which is much like a greenhouse) is built on the south side of a building. As sunlight passes through glass or other glazing, it warms the sunspace. Proper ventilation allows the heat to circulate into the building. On the other hand, a trombe wall is a very thick, south-facing wall, which is painted black and made of a material that absorbs a lot of heat. A pane of glass or plastic glazing, installed a few inches in front of the wall, helps hold in the heat. The wall heats up slowly during the day. Then as it cools gradually during the night, it gives off its heat inside the building.

Solar Process Space Heating and Cooling

Commercial and industrial buildings may use the same solar technologies – photovoltaic, passive heating, day lighting, and water heating – that are used for residential buildings. These nonresidential buildings can also use solar energy technologies that would be impractical for a home. These technologies include ventilation air preheating, solar process heating, and solar cooling.

Many large buildings need ventilated air to maintain indoor air quality. In cold climates, heating this air can use large amounts of energy. A solar ventilation system can preheat the air, saving both energy and money. This type of system typically uses a transpired collector, which consists of a thin, black metal panel mounted on a south-facing wall to absorb the sun’s heat. Air passes through the many small holes in the panel. A space behind the perforated wall allows the air streams from the holes to mix together. The heated air is then sucked out from the top of the space into the ventilation system.

Solar process heating systems are designed to provide large quantities of hot water or space heating for nonresidential buildings. A typical system includes solar collectors that work along with a pump, a heat exchanger, and/or one or more large storage tanks. The two main types of solar collectors used – an evacuated-tube collector and a parabolic-trough collector – can operate at high temperatures with high efficiency. An evacuated-tube collector is a shallow box full of many glass, double-walled tubes and reflectors to heat the fluid inside the tubes. A vacuum between the two walls insulates the inner tube, holding in the heat. Parabolic troughs are long, rectangular, curved (U-shaped) mirrors tilted to focus sunlight on a tube, which runs down the center of the trough. This heats the fluid within the tube.


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