What is solar energy and how does it work?

You’ve probably seen all the solar panels popping up on roofs and wondered how they work – read on and wonder no longer.

At its core, solar energy takes the energy produced from the sun and converts it into the type of energy that can power your house.

New solutions for creating electricity from solar are being created all the time, but there are two main ways solar power is generated:

  • Solar photovoltaic
  • Solar thermal

Solar energy for your home

The solar panels on the roofs of homes are referred to as ‘solar photovoltaic’, but this is commonly shortened to ‘PV’ because it’s a bit of a mouthful.

It works by taking the rays from the sun and directing it through a solar panel, which then gets transmitted to an inverter, and then supplies your home in a similar way traditional wires do.

The whole process works much like this:

PV can be scaled up or down, depending on how much energy you want to create.

PV for the grid

Origin Energy is playing its part in generating clean energy for the grid by buying energy from utility scale solar farms.

In fact, we buy so much solar we’re the largest buyer of solar energy in the country – we’ve signed agreements to buy 680 megawatts (MW) of power generated by solar farms since 2016.

These farms work in much the same way solar generation for your home does – just on a much, much bigger scale.

To give you an idea of how big these farms are, the Clare Solar Farm (one of the projects we buy from) in northern Queensland has generation capacity of 100MW. A solar panel for your roof has an average generation capacity of 250W. Given 1MW contains a whopping 1,000,000 watts – you can start to get an idea of how big these projects are!

Meanwhile, solar thermal projects are also gaining traction to generate industrial-scale energy from the sun.

Solar thermal

Solar panels aren’t the only way to generate electricity from the sun – solar thermal is becoming an increasingly popular way to generate power.

It works by concentrating light bouncing off a vast array of reflective panels at a central point. Think about how a magnifying glass can concentrate energy to a central point, and you start to get an idea of how solar thermal works. The sun’s rays are bounced off hundreds of reflective panels and concentrated at a central point, which creates a lot of heat. This heat is then use to heat up liquid, which then produces super-concentrated steam, which then is used to power a turbine – resulting in electricity.

So far no major-scale solar thermal projects have been created in Australia, but there are plans to build a 150MW project near Port Augusta.

But what about when the sun doesn’t shine?

Solar energy is great, but it only works when the sun is actually out. Well, until now.

Solar batteries such as Tesla’s Powerwall are changing the game by creating a way to use solar energy when the sun isn’t shining. They essentially take the power generated by an inverter and store it for later use.

It works in much the same way the batteries in your TV remote work, but because the type of energy is a bit different it’s taken until now to work out all the kinks. It’s also taken a while to create a battery which is big enough to power the average home, but is available at a price which won’t break the bank.

Origin is proud to have helped over 100,000 households reduce their carbon footprint by switching to solar. Helping them take advantage of the new technology to generate power when they’re at work during the day, and powering up their homes at night. Some have even been able to generate enough stored energy to export back to the grid and received a credit on their bill.

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