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What is Solar Energy?

The sun is a huge energy source that is converting its own mass into light particles called photons. Trillions of photons fill earth's atmosphere every second. The sun provides us with an unlimited supply of light.

All of the earth's energy comes from the sun. In the case of renewable energy sources and how we harness that solar energy, the link is often very clear: sunlight shining through a window or on a solar heating panel creates warmth, and when it strikes a photovoltaic (PV) panel the sunlight is converted directly into electricity. The sun's energy causes the winds to blow, which moves the blades of a wind turbine, causing a generator shaft to spin and produce electricity. The sun evaporates water and forms the clouds in the sky from which the water, in the form of rain drops, falls back to earth becomes a stream that runs downhill into a micro-hydroelectric generator.

While these energy sources are renewable, they are also variable and intermittent. The sun is not always available. It get cloudy. Its gets dark. However, we humans like to have light and warm or cool air available anytime. So, we need additional components such as batteries, heat pumps, and insulators to store energy for use when we need it. Although the storage components are complicated, the theory and techniques required to understand, install, and live with renewable energy are not.

What Countries Use Solar Energy?

Every country uses solar energy, mostly for farming and food production. However, some countries have been very proactive in reducing their dependence on fossil fuel energy sources. Most of those countries are in Europe. Here are the top 10 solar energy users in Europe. Data in table sourced from PHOTOVOLTAIC BAROMETER - EUROBSERV'ER - APRIL 2010

Country2009 Total PV Use (in MWp)Increase from Previous Year
Germany3,811,300110%
Italy574,10069.8%
Czech Republic411,227735.6%
Belgium292,100491%
France185,447227%
Spain99,011-97%
Greece36,500291%
Portugal34,253-31.6%
United Kingdom10,100129%
Netherlands643357%

Germany is the world's largest installer of roof top photovoltaic solar panels. They installed more than 2000 MW of solar power in 2010. They are on track to install another 1000 MW this year and every year after. They have done away with clearing land for solar field installetion and have elected to make all new installations on existing roof-tops.

Some countries give incentives for home owners and businesses to install solar and other renewable energy products. For example Germany uses what is called Feed-In Tariff. This gives incentives for investors to back renewable energy projects with a government guarantee that their money invested will return a yield or they will be reimbursed by the government. In a feed-in tariff utilities are required to purchase power from individual renewable energy installations at a set rate for a long period of time, say 20 years. This assures investors will have a low risk rate of return on their investments. This also assures that costs of renewable power sources will remain constant, while costs for fossil fuel based power will continue to increase; thus lessening the demand for fossil based generation and increasing demand for renewable energy. Once energy costs are stable and low, a community becomes more attractive for companies to move in and create more jobs. So feed-in tariffs are quite an attractive instrument for making the switch to renewable energy sources.

Established utilities don't like it and fight it. However, the majority of citizens in countries such as Germany want to switch to new renewable energy sources and have pushed their governments to implement such investment instruments.

Although the countries listed above have a relatively long history of using solar energy for power, today, many other countries have begun investing heavily in renewable energy sources such as solar. Here is a list of fastest growing solar energy using countries.

  • Canada has built the largest PV solar farm in the world to this date.
  • Italy has built the second largest solar, when only a couple of years ago they had virtually no solar power production.
  • Australia has a bold plan to generate 100% of their electricity needs from renewable sources within 10 years. Check out this 193 page document on the Australia Zero Carbon Energy Plan.
  • Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean is a small country that consists of two chains of small islands in the Indian Ocean. Being the lowest country in the world, they are very concerned about sea level rise due to climate change. The President Mohammed Nasheed has not only installed solar panels on his presidential residence as a part of a 350.org work day in 2010, he held the first ever underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the severity of rising sea-levels on the Maldives Islands.

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