What is Solar Energy?

In order to understand the basics of solar energy, first we need a refresher course about the sun –

The sun is approximately 93 million miles from Earth

The light we see from the sun takes eight minutes to reach us

The sun contains more than 99.8% of the total mass of the Solar System (Jupiter contains most of the rest)

The sun is approximately 4.6 billion years old and will continue to burn for approximately 5 billion years

The sun is 109 times bigger than Earth with a radius of 432,500 miles and a circumference of just over 2.7 million miles

The Greeks named the sun ‘helios’ and the Romans named it ‘sol’

The average surface temperature of the sun is 5,700˚C

Solar Energy

Solar energy is a term for describing a range of methods for obtaining energy from the sun. Many people immediately think about solar panels when hearing solar energy but wind, biomass and hydro power are all forms of solar energy.

Every day the sun emits an enormous amount of energy. To quantify what ‘enormous’ means in this case, the sun radiates more energy in one second than every person who has ever lived has used since the beginning of time.

The energy that constantly radiates from the sun comes from within the sun itself. Like other stars, the sun is a big ball of gas––mostly hydrogen and helium atoms.

The hydrogen atoms in the sun’s core combine to form helium and generate energy in a process called nuclear fusion. During nuclear fusion, the sun’s extremely high pressure and temperature cause hydrogen atoms to come apart and their nuclei (the central cores of the atoms) to fuse or combine. Four hydrogen nuclei fuse to become one helium atom, but the helium atom contains less mass than the four fused hydrogen atoms.

Some matter is lost during nuclear fusion and this lost matter is emitted into space as radiant energy. It takes millions of years for the energy in the sun’s core to make its way to the solar surface, and then just a little over eight minutes to travel the 93 million miles to earth. The solar energy travels to the earth at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, the speed of light.

Only a small portion – one part in two billion – of the energy radiated by the sun into space strikes Earth. Yet this amount of energy is enormous. To put it into perspective, every day enough solar energy strikes the United States to supply the nation’s energy needs for one and a half years.

Where does all this energy go? About 15% of the sun’s energy that hits Earth is reflected back into space. Another 30% is used to evaporate water, which, lifted into the atmosphere, produces rainfall. Solar energy also is absorbed by plants, the land, and the oceans. The rest could – and should – be used to supply our energy needs.
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