One of the most common misconceptions about solar is that it’s an untested technology. Skeptics argue there’s no way to tell how long the panels will last, or that they will require costly maintenance on a regular basis. The truth is not as close to this as you may think.
Betty Bear Hut, a recreational haven.
The panels in the above picture are installed on the Betty Bear Hut, a recreational haven in the central Colorado backcountry. It has seen harsh winters, blistering summers, and a whole lot of sun at 11,100 feet elevation. It’s just one of many old solar installations that are still kicking decades into their service. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, nowadays, decades of service are the rule, not the exception, for solar panels. Matter of fact, solar panels have been used for over 60 years to keep communications and exploration satellites running. The astronauts on the International Space Station have trusted their lives to solar power for over 13 years, in the harsh environment of space.
The International Space Station (ISS)
Graphic of the Mars Curiosity rover, stationed on Mars for the last 8 years and counting.
Our sun is a naturally occurring nuclear reactor. It releases tiny packets of energy called photons, which then travel the 93 million miles from the sun to Earth in about eight-and-a-half minutes. Every hour, enough photons impact our planet to theoretically satisfy global energy needs for an whole year. However, solar-generated power currently accounts for just four-tenths of one percent of the total energy consumed in the United States. Solar technology is improving and costs are dropping rapidly, though, so our ability to harness the sun’s abundance of energy is on the rise. In fact, a report from the International Energy Agency indicates that solar energy could become the largest global source of electricity by 2050. In the coming years, we will all be enjoying the benefits of solar-generated electricity in one way or another. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are made up of many solar cells. Solar cells are made of silicon, like semiconductors. They are constructed with a positive layer and a negative layer, which together create an electric field, just like in a battery. When photons hit a solar cell, they knock electrons loose from their atoms. If conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides of a cell, it forms an electrical circuit. When electrons flow through such a circuit, they generate electricity. Multiple cells make up a solar panel, and multiple panels (modules) can be wired together to form a solar array. The more panels you can deploy, the more energy you can expect to generate.