The sun has produced energy for billions of years and is the ultimate source for all of the energy sources and fuels that we use today. People have used the sun's rays (solar radiation) for thousands of years for warmth and to dry meat, fruit, and grains. Over time, people developed technologies to collect solar energy for heat and to convert it into electricity.
An example of an early solar energy collection device is the solar oven (a box for collecting and absorbing sunlight). In the 1830s, British astronomer John Herschel used a solar oven to cook food during an expedition to Africa. People now use many different technologies for collecting and converting solar radiation into useful heat energy for a variety of purposes.
We use solar thermal energy systems to heat:
Solar photovoltaic (PV) devices, or solar cells, change sunlight directly into electricity. Small PV cells can power calculators, watches, and other small electronic devices. Arrangements of many solar cells in PV panels and arrangements of multiple PV panels in PV arrays can produce electricity for an entire house. Some PV power plants have large arrays that cover many acres to produce electricity for thousands of homes.
Using solar energy has two main benefits:
Solar energy also has some limitations: