Solar Energy for Kids

Sierra SunTower 5 MW facility in California

Sierra SunTower 5 MW facility in California. Image by Bardot. Copyright: GNU FDL

Most of the people in the world still use fossil fuels such as oil and coal to make their electricity. This is a bad idea because fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources that we are quickly running out of. It is also bad for the environment because using fossil fuels for electricity releases dangerous greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, adding to the problem of global warming. The best way to stop this pollution is to stop using fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources, also called alternative energy, for our electricity needs. One of these alternative energy sources is solar energy, or energy from the sun. Most people think solar energy is the best kind of renewable energy because everyone gets sunlight and it is the cheapest, safest kind of energy.

How Solar Energy Works

Everyone who has ever climbed into a car on a sunny day knows that the sun warms everything it touches. In fact, the sun puts out two types of energy waves, light and heat. We can capture these energy waves and use them to do many of the things we are now doing with fossil fuels. The heat energy from the sun can be used as what is called thermal energy for things like heating water. This works by letting the sun heat water stored in coiled tubes and then storing the hot water until we are ready to use it. Since electric water heaters use up to 1/3 of a family’s electricity every year, simply using solar hot water can make a big difference to our environment.

Another way to use energy from the sun is called photovoltaics, which simply means changing the light energy to electricity. It may sound confusing but it is really simple. Solar panels catch sunlight waves and a material called silicon knocks the electrons off of the particles of light energy. Electrons are the part of the particles that carry electricity. Another layer in the solar panel uses a magnetic pull to drag the electrons along, creating an electric current. This electricity can then be used to power our homes or can be stored in batteries for use later. Sometimes, solar panels make more electricity than people need. This extra electricity can be put into the regular power system, or grid, for use by other people. In many places, electric companies pay people for feeding extra solar electricity into the grid.

Why Should We Use Solar Energy?

Passive (thermisiphon) solar water heaters in Jerusalem. Image by Gilabrand.

Passive (thermisiphon) solar water heaters in Jerusalem. Image by Gilabrand. License: GNU FDL

There are many reasons why solar energy is a good choice for our electricity needs. First, it is cheap. When people decide to use solar energy for their homes, they have to install solar panels and other items to capture and use the electricity. This can cost a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars, which sounds expensive. Using solar power is so cheap, though, that families save enough money to pay for their equipment in a few years and then they have free electricity for the rest of their lives. Right now, solar energy is the cheapest form of electricity to use. Since the sun shines its light on everyone for free everyday, it is possible for the whole world to use it.

Solar panel systems are almost completely free of problems. They don’t make any noise when they turn sunlight to electricity, making them the only completely quiet energy source. The solar panels don’t have any moving parts, either. That means there is nothing that can wear out or break so solar panels can work for a very long time with no maintenance except cleaning.

Finally, solar energy is clean. We do not have to take anything away from out planet to get it. That means no drilling and no mining. It also means we don’t have the destruction of habitats and accidental pollution that happens when we drill for oil or mine for coal. It is also safe for the environment when we use it. Solar energy does not make greenhouse gases or any other type of pollution to be released in our environment.

What’s Bad About Solar Energy?

Solar energy is almost perfect but there are a few problems that keep some people from using it for their electricity needs. The biggest of these problems is the cost. Like we discussed before, it can be very expensive to buy and install the panels and other things needed to use solar electricity. Luckily, new technology is making solar panels cheaper and in a few years it will be much easier for people to afford it.

Installing solar panels takes up a lot of space. Many people have plenty of room on their roofs for this but it can be a problem for people in very small houses or apartments. Until solar panels can be made more efficient at a smaller size, it will be hard for people with limited space to find a place to install a solar power system.

Since solar energy depends on direct sunlight, large amounts of air pollution, clouds, or other objects that create shade can cut down on how well the panels work. This is not as big of a problem as it used to be, however, because newer solar panels can work better even when the sunlight is not at full strength. Solar panels cannot make electricity at night, either. Because of this, people who want to use only solar electricity must have a battery storage system to save extra electricity for nighttime or really cloudy days. Instead of using battery storage, some people solve this problem by either using a wind power turbine with their solar power system or by staying hooked up to regular electricity to use when solar power is not available.

Even though solar energy is not completely perfect, the benefits of using it are much greater than any problems. As scientists create smaller, better, more powerful solar panels at a cheaper cost, more and more people will find it easy to use. The more people that use it, the cleaner out environment will be.




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