Solar energy is the most readily available source of energy. It does not belong to anybody and is, therefore, free. It is also the most important of the non-conventional sources of energy because it is non-polluting and, therefore, helps in lessening the greenhouse effect.
Solar energy has been used since prehistoric times, but in a most primitive manner. Before 1970, some research and development was carried out in a few countries to exploit solar energy more efficiently, but most of this work remained mainly academic. After the dramatic rise in oil prices in the 1970s, several countries began to formulate extensive research and development programmes to exploit solar energy.
In the next few years it is expected that millions of households in the world will be using solar energy as the trends in USA and Japan show. In India too, the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency and the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources are formulating a programme to have solar energy in more than a million households in the next few years. However, the people’s initiative is essential if the programme is to be successful.
India is one of the few countries with long days and plenty of sunshine, especially in the Thar desert region. This zone, having abundant solar energy available, is suitable for harnessing solar energy for a number of applications. In areas with similar intensity of solar radiation, solar energy could be easily harnessed. Solar thermal energy is being used in India for heating water for both industrial and domestic purposes. A 140 MW integrated solar power plant is to be set up in Jodhpur but the initial expense incurred is still very high.
Solar energy can also be used to meet our electricity requirements. Through Solar Photovoltaic (SPV) cells, solar radiation gets converted into DC electricity directly. This electricity can either be used as it is or can be stored in the battery. This stored electrical energy then can be used at night. SPV can be used for a number of applications such as:
- Domestic lighting
- Street lighting
- Village electrification
- Water pumping
- Desalination of salty water
- Powering of remote telecommunication repeater stations and
- Railway signals.
If the means to make efficient use of solar energy could be found, it would reduce our dependence on non-renewable sources of energy and make our environment cleaner.
Direct Collection of Solar Energy
Flat Plate Collectors
A typical flat-plate collector is a metal box with a glass or plastic cover (called glazing) on top and a dark-colored absorber plate on the bottom. The sides and bottom of the collector are usually insulated to minimize heat loss.
Sunlight passes through the glazing and strikes the absorber plate, which heats up, changing solar energy into heat energy. The heat is transferred to liquid passing through pipes attached to the absorber plate. Absorber plates are commonly painted with “selective coatings,” which absorb and retain heat better than ordinary black paint. Absorber plates are usually made of metal—typically copper or aluminum—because the metal is a good heat conductor. Copper is more expensive, but is a better conductor and less prone to corrosion than aluminum. In locations with average available solar energy, flat plate collectors are sized approximately one-half- to one-square foot per gallon of one-day’s hot water use.
The main use of this technology is in residential buildings where the demand for hot water has a large impact on energy bills. This generally means a situation with a large family, or a situation in which the hot water demand is excessive due to frequent laundry washing.
Commercial applications include laundromats, car washes, military laundry facilities and eating establishments. The technology can also be used for space heating if the building is located off-grid or if utility power is subject to frequent outages. Solar water heating systems are most likely to be cost effective for facilities with water heating systems that are expensive to operate, or with operations such as laundries or kitchens that require large quantities of hot water.
Sunglazed liquid collectors are commonly used to heat water for swimming pools. Because these collectors need not withstand high temperatures, they can use less expensive materials such as plastic or rubber. They also do not require freeze-proofing because swimming pools are generally used only in warm weather or can be drained easily during cold weather. While solar collectors are most cost-effective in sunny, temperate areas, they can be cost effective virtually anywhere in the country so should be considered.
A solar collector that uses reflective surfaces to concentrate sunlight onto a small area, where it is absorbed and converted to heat or, in the case of solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, into electricity. Concentrators can increase the power flux of sunlight hundreds of times. The principal types of concentrating collectors include: compound parabolic, parabolic trough, fixed reflector moving receiver, fixed receiver moving reflector, Fresnel lens, and central receiver.
Concentrating collectors use mirrored surfaces to concentrate the sun’s energy on an absorber called a receiver. Concentrating collectors also achieve high temperatures, but unlike evacuated-tube collectors, they can do so only when direct sunlight is available. The mirrored surface focuses sunlight collected over a large area onto a smaller absorber area to achieve high temperatures. Some designs concentrate solar energy onto a focal point, while others concentrate the sun’s rays along a thin line called the focal line. The receiver is located at the focal point or along the focal line. A heat-transfer fluid flows through the receiver and absorbs heat. These collectors reach much higher temperatures than flat-plate collectors. However, concentrators can only focus direct solar radiation, with the result being that their performance is poor on hazy or cloudy days. Concentrators are most practical in areas of high insolation (exposure to the sun’s rays), such as those close to the equator and in the desert.
Concentrators are used mostly in commercial applications because they are expensive and because the trackers need frequent maintenance. Some residential solar energy systems use parabolic-trough concentrating systems. These installations can provide hot water, space heating, and water purification. Most residential systems use single-axis trackers, which are less expensive and simpler than dual-axis trackers.