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The sun shining on photovoltaic panels.
Photo Credit: Tim Webb

Did you know that the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth's surface in an hour and a half is enough to handle the entire world's energy consumption for a full year? Solar energy has amazing potential to power our daily lives thanks to constantly-improving technologies.

Solar energy systems come in all shapes and sizes. Residential systems are found on rooftops across the United States, and businesses are also opting to install solar panels to offset their energy costs. Utilities, too, are building large solar power plants to provide cleaner energy to all customers connected to the grid.

There are two main types of solar energy technologies—photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP). You're likely most familiar with PV, which is utilized in panels. When the sun shines onto a solar panel, photons from the sunlight are absorbed by the cells in the panel, which creates an electric field across the layers and causes electricity to flow.

The second technology is concentrating solar power, or CSP. It is used primarily in very large power plants and is not appropriate for residential use. This technology uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat, which can then be used to produce electricity.

Solar energy technology doesn’t end with electricity generation by PV or CSP systems. These solar energy systems must be integrated into existing electrical grids with varying mixtures of traditional and other renewable energy sources. A number of non-hardware costs, known as soft costs, also impact how solar energy can be deployed.

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