Definition of Solar Power and How it Works

Solar image by Thomas Leiss from

A major part of the green living movement involves the use of alternative energy sources to replace our consumption of traditional fossil-fuel generated electricity. This alternative energy can be generated by wind or by solar power, which has become and increasingly popular way to power residential and commerical structures. Solar power is derived directly from the sun's natural light and its use is both environmentally-friendly and cost-effective over the long term.


In the simplest terms, solar power is energy that comes from the sun. The U.S. Energy Information Administration defines solar energy as the sun’s rays, also known as solar radiation, that reach the Earth which can then be converted into other forms of energy, like heat and electricity. Solar power is a renewable and sustainable energy source and can be used around the world to generate electricity for a number of different purposes (See References 2).

Solar Panels

Solar power can be converted into electricity in one of two ways. The first way is through the use of solar cells or photovoltaic devices, commonly known as solar panels (See References 1). Solar panels are composed of semiconductor materials, including two sheets of silicon separated by an electrical field which are designed to capture the photons of energy contained in sunlight. The N-layer is made of silicon atoms that have extra electrons while the P-layer is made of silicon atoms that are missing electrons. Sunlight directs electrons from the P-layer to the N-layer, and by creating a circuit back to the P-layer, electrical energy is generated (See References 3).

Solar Thermal Power Plants

Solar thermal power plants use energy contained in sunlight to heat fluids to very high temperatures. The fluid is circulated through pipes where its heat is transferred to water and converted to steam. The steam is then changed into mechanical energy in a turbine and into electricity by a conventional generator that is connected to the turbine (See References 1). Solar thermal power systems may be categorized as a solar trough, which is most common, a solar dish or a solar power tower.


Solar power can be used to generate electricity to homes, businesses and industrial structures. Solar power can also be used to fuel a number of other electronic devices, including water heaters, furnaces, ovens, watches and phone chargers.


Solar power is a renewable energy source whose supply is virtually inexhaustible. The use of solar power generates no greenhouse gas emissions, air or water pollution and it doesn't require the use of nonrenewable natural resources. Solar power can be used to fuel both small- and large-scale electrical systems and it is fairly easy to convert to electric power (See References 2).


According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar power is not without its disadvantages, including a potential threat to the environment. Solar panels may contain potentially toxic chemicals and substances which can contribute to air and water pollution if they are leaked. Solar thermal power plants also have the potential to threaten the animal species located in the area surrounding them.