Solar Energy Facts: Some Things You Didn’t Know

Solar energy is here to stay, and most of us are becoming more familiar with its practical implications. Even if you’ve beefed up your solar vocabulary to include arrays, concentrators and inverters, there are still many solar energy facts that may suprise you.

SmartWatt’s Top Solar Energy Facts

1. Its Origin Story

In 1954, Bell Laboratories built the first silicon solar cell, the precursor of all solar-powered devices. It was Bell’s solution to the issue of finding alternative sources of freestanding power. The problem they were trying to solve was regarding the nascent telephone system—traditional dry cell batteries, which worked fine in mild climates, but degraded too rapidly in the tropics and were prone to failure.

According to the Energy.gov series about solar energy facts the “Top Things You Didn’t Know About…,” on page one of its April 26, 1954 issue, the New York Times proclaimed the milestone, “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams—the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.” The world had less than a watt of solar cells capable of running electrical equipment in 1954.

2. The First Large Scale Use of Solar Power

Despite unsuccessful attempts to commercialize the silicon solar cell in the 1950s and 60s, it was productively employed in service of powering satellites—its first commercial application. The energy.gov series states, “The Vanguard 1—the first artificial earth satellite powered by solar cells—remains the oldest manmade satellite in orbit—logging more than 6 billion miles.”

3. Meteoric Growth
Currently, demand for solar in the United States is at an all-time high and has been expanding exponentially. In the first quarter of 2012, developers installed 85 percent more solar panels compared to the first quarter of 2011. In 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the U.S. installed 4,751 MW of solar PV, up 41 percent over 2012 and nearly 15 times the amount installed in 2008. As for 2014, says SEIA, there were over 49,000 installations in Q3, which translates into nearly 600,000 U.S. homes and businesses that have now gone solar. SEIA states that through Q3, a new solar project was installed every 3 minutes in 2014. Officially, the United States is now the third largest solar power market in the world, after Japan and China.

4. Available in Concentrate

Concentrating solar power (CSP) broadens the range of solar power considerably. According to energy.gov, it “offers a utility-scale, firm, dispatchable renewable energy option that can help meet our nation’s demand for electricity.” CSP plants use mirrors to focus sunlight to heat a working fluid. Steam from the heat then gets used to spin a turbine or power an engine that drives a generator, resulting in bona fide electricity.

5. Guinness Book of World Records Worthy

In California’s Mojave Desert, the largest solar energy project in the world is under construction. Located across 1,765 acres about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the 280-megawatt gross parabolic trough (CSP) plant will be capable of powering approximately 140,000 homes and is supported by an Energy Department loan guarantee. Today, more than 1,400 MW of CSP plants operate in the United States, and another 390 MW will be placed in service in the next year.

Bonus Question:

What is the Azimuth Angle?

Give up? It’s the angle between true south and the point on the horizon directly below the sun.

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