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What is Solar Energy Engineering?

Solar Energy Engineering is the innovative field where technology and sustainability intersect, focusing on harnessing the sun's power to generate clean electricity. It's a multidisciplinary endeavor, blending physics, materials science, and environmental studies to create efficient solar systems. Curious about how this engineering marvel is shaping our future? Dive deeper to discover the bright possibilities solar energy holds.
Samantha G. Dias
Samantha G. Dias

Solar energy engineering is the science behind capturing the sun’s radiant light and heat and converting these naturally occurring elements into electrical, thermal, and chemical outputs for practical use. This type of green engineering, also known as environmentally sustainable engineering, involves state-of-the-art work on a wide variety of solar power systems, including photovoltaic panels, solar collectors, hybrid solar lighting equipment, and fuel cells. These efforts aim to reduce the consumption of energy derived from traditional fossil fuels.

Initiatives related to solar energy engineering support a wide variety of agricultural, commercial, and industrial applications. They help generate electricity, treat water, and heat and cool structures. Through its use of a renewable resource — the sun — this type of energy generation and use helps meet human development needs for energy with minimal environmental impacts.

Solar energy engineering often involves working with solar panels.
Solar energy engineering often involves working with solar panels.

Engineering solutions for solar energy collection and use generally have the additional benefit of steady resource supply. This helps keep the price of that resource at a fixed price. As a result, engineering related to solar energy has a leg up over other energy sources like natural gas and oil.

Yet another benefit of solar energy installations is its relatively independent nature. That is, these energy solutions are often capable of supplying power independent of the power grid. This makes solar energy engineering a popular approach to providing energy to remote places. At the same time, these installations are small and flexible enough for use in highly populated urban settings.

A closeup of a solar panel.
A closeup of a solar panel.

Although solar energy tools have improved significantly since the late nineteenth century, there is still much work needed to be done to boost their output capability and overall efficiency. That's where the creative minds of solar energy engineers come in. Like wind energy, solar energy is an intermittent generation resource. This poses serious challenges when sunlight is unavailable at night or during certain seasonal or weather conditions. Solving this reliability problem is one of the chief goals of solar energy engineering, and this concern will likely be remedied in the future through improved energy storage techniques.

The number of annual solar power system installations have increased greatly around the world. Nevertheless, solar energy remains just a tiny portion of the word’s total energy production. Also, only an infinitesimal amount of the sun’s available energy is currently being used in this effort. It is said that the amount of solar energy absorbed by the earth’s surface in one hour exceeds the total amount of energy used by individuals the world over in an entire year. For this reason, there is tremendous growth potential inherent in the solar energy field.

According to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries are expected to flourish worldwide in the coming years. In particular, analysts anticipate a marked increase in solar energy engineering opportunities for the foreseeable future. To meet the expanding need for solar energy engineers, numerous schools throughout the United States, Europe, and elsewhere now offer certification courses, training programs, and both undergraduate and graduate degrees specifically tailored to the solar energy engineering field. Prospective solar energy engineers are also typically required to study environmental laws and policies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is solar energy engineering?

Solar energy engineering is a field of engineering focused on the design, development, and management of solar energy systems. These systems convert sunlight into electricity or heat, and engineers in this field work on improving efficiency, durability, and affordability of solar technologies to make them a viable energy source for a wide range of applications.

What are the main types of solar energy systems?

There are two main types of solar energy systems: photovoltaic (PV) systems, which convert sunlight directly into electricity using solar cells, and solar thermal systems, which use sunlight to heat a fluid that can then be used to produce steam for power generation or for heating purposes.

How efficient are current solar panels?

As of 2023, the average efficiency of commercial solar panels is between 15% to 20%, with some high-efficiency models reaching above 22%. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the record for solar cell efficiency is 39.5% for a multi-junction concentrator cell as of December 2020. (https://www.nrel.gov/pv/cell-efficiency.html)

What advancements are being made in solar energy engineering?

Advancements in solar energy engineering include the development of perovskite solar cells, which promise higher efficiencies and lower manufacturing costs. Additionally, engineers are working on integrating solar with storage solutions, improving grid compatibility, and creating flexible, lightweight panels for a variety of applications.

How do solar engineers improve the sustainability of solar panels?

Solar engineers improve sustainability by focusing on the entire lifecycle of solar panels, from using recyclable and eco-friendly materials to designing panels for easy end-of-life recycling. Efforts also include reducing the energy input required for manufacturing and ensuring that solar farms are developed with minimal impact on natural habitats.

What is the potential impact of solar energy engineering on global energy needs?

Solar energy engineering has the potential to significantly impact global energy needs by providing a clean, renewable source of power. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar PV could become the largest source of electricity by 2050, potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions by gigatonnes annually. (https://www.iea.org/reports/technology-roadmap-solar-photovoltaic-energy-2014)

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Discussion Comments

anon308352

@dudla: I believe so, but it depends on where it's hit and its radius.

dudla

If a solar energy collection and distribution system can be independent of the overall power grid of a country, are these solar energy installations impervious to an EMP attack?

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    • Solar energy engineering often involves working with solar panels.
      By: Pinosub
      Solar energy engineering often involves working with solar panels.
    • A closeup of a solar panel.
      By: Sergiogen
      A closeup of a solar panel.