Solar power is hailed as both an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels and as an impractical means to meet modern energy demands. While both arguments have their merit, solar power does have a place in the green energy market.
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Solar power's biggest advantage is the limitless source of fuel. As long as there is a sun in the sky, solar power generators can produce energy. In addition to being limitless, the sun's energy is also free, which reduces costs once a solar cell is up and running compared to fossil fuel-consuming power sources. This shift from dependence on carbon-emitting fuels is advantageous in a world concerned with climate change and greenhouse gasses. Small-scale solar units can be installed on homes and businesses to reduce electricity costs and even provide a limited power source during blackouts. This ability to operate off the grid makes solar power more resilient to disasters where power may be knocked out and could potentially provide enough energy for bare necessities until grid power is restored.
While the sun is limitless and free, it may not always be shining where and when you want it. An overcast sky severely limits the efficiency of solar generators, not to mention the fact that when night comes, it doesn't matter if there's clouds or not--there is no light for the panels to capture. Also, not all areas of the globe receive equally strong solar radiation. The sun's rays are strong in areas like the American southwest, but the energy generated in this region could hardly handle the energy needs of the entire country. Currently, solar technology is cost prohibitive for many, though this is likely only a temporary disadvantage as investments in solar technology continue to rise. For the present, most people cannot afford to install solar panels on their roofs or at their businesses.
Overall, solar power is gaining rapid market shares for energy production. New technology is also helping to alleviate some of the current problems with solar energy. Traditional solar power relies on a photovoltaic process, which turns sunlight directly into electricity. Thermal solar systems use collector dishes to focus sunlight onto a substrate like molten salt, which releases stored heat slowly to run a steam turbine. Thermal solar systems can continue to release their stored heat for hours after dark, meeting peak energy demands in the evening when sunlight is not available. Even photovoltaic panels can now generate 45 per cent efficiency, which is considerably higher than the average combustion engine (around 20 per cent for most cars). Since solar power is at maximum efficiency in outer space where there is no atmosphere to diminish the sun's rays, new research is being aimed at orbital power stations which beam energy round-the-clock to Earth-bound receivers via microwave radiation.
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