SustainabilityJuly 10, 2024

How do solar energy resources work?

When the sun shines onto solar cells, energy from the sunlight is absorbed and transformed into electrical charges. Explore how this conversion takes place and its applications.
Avatar Melissa Russell

Solar power has been in use since ancient times, at least since the 3rd century B.C., when Greeks and Romans used mirrors to reflect sunlight for religious ceremonies. Today, solar energy resources are powering homes, vehicles and even spacecraft orbiting Earth.

In the simplest terms, solar power is light–electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun. Solar technologies capture this radiation and convert it into energy. The amount of sunlight striking the Earth’s surface in an hour and half is enough to power the world’s energy consumption for a full year.

There are a wide variety of solar energy systems harnessing the sun’s power, from rooftop solar panels to large solar power plants. They are heating homes and businesses and all sorts of devices from streetlights, computer laptops and compacting trashcans, to cars, boats and desalination plants.

How is solar energy converted into electricity? 

There are two main types of solar energy technologies: photovoltaics (PV) used in solar panels, and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP). When sunlight shines onto solar panels, energy is absorbed by the PV cells in the panel, causing electrical charges that move in response to an internal electrical field in the cell, causing electricity to flow. CSP, used primarily in large power plants, uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect and convert solar energy resources to heat, which can be used to produce electricity or stored for later use.

What are some advantages of solar energy? 

There are many benefits to using solar energy for generating electricity and heat. Solar energy systems don’t produce pollutants or greenhouse gases and have few environmental impacts. Solar energy can help to reduce the cost of electricity and increase the resilience of electrical grids. It is a renewable resource; as long as the sun continues to shine, energy will be released. It is clean, provides energy independence and offers long-term savings. The materials used in solar panels are increasingly recycled, so in coming years, the carbon footprint of solar energy resources will continue to shrink.

Some solar-powered homes generate more electricity than is needed, allowing the homeowner to sell excess power back to the grid. Solar-powered homes in isolated areas can generate electricity without being connected to the electrical grid at all.

Is solar energy renewable?

Renewable or clean energy comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. Think of wind, water and yes, solar energy resources. It is the ultimate renewable resource, and the Earth can expect a steady, limitless supply of sunlight for another five billion years. Renewable energy sources are shown to be the most reliable, abundant and cost-effective form of energy security. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, utility-scale wind and solar power are now less expensive than energy from gas or coal. Over the last decade, the cost of energy from solar energy resources has dropped 89 percent, saving consumers money, creating jobs, spurring investment in new technologies, and strengthening energy security.

The German company, Kraftblock, is using Dassault Systèmes’ virtual twin experiences in its design process, developing technology to store and distribute excess power produced by large wind and solar farms, to enable a constant supply for high-temperature industries like steel and ceramics. The goal, according to co-founder Marvin Schichtel, is to create a totally sustainable energy system.

Kraftblock's solar energy storage - solar energy resources - Dassault Systemes blog

Solar energy examples all around us 

From solar-powered homes to electric vehicles, solar power is changing the way people live, cook, travel, and have fun. Some grid-connected homes with rooftop PV panels generate more electricity than needed, which can then be sold back to the electric grid. Streetlights, with small photovoltaic panels, charge small batteries during the day, and harness the accumulated energy into light once the sun goes down. Electric vehicles, including cars, buses and bicycles are becoming increasingly popular around the world, allowing for emission-free travel through solar energy resources. Solar cookers can be used to prepare anything that can be cooked in a conventional oven or stove, and can be used outdoors. Solar water heaters are increasingly being used in homes, and swimming pools are heated more inexpensively with solar collectors.

Taking advantage of solar energy resources

 Several of our customers are using virtual twin experiences to develop  sustainable innovations designed to harness solar energy resources.  

The French start-up XSun designs autonomous solar-powered drones, and used the 3DEXPERIENCE platform on the cloud to design, simulate and test the technology. Their system uses PV cells to power drones that can fly continuously over long distances for long periods, day or night, for infrastructure, agricultural, maritime and civil purposes.

French-Canadian startup TransPod is designing ultra-high-speed ground transportation powered by solar energy.

In India, where 70 percent of households depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, losing food to spoilage can be devastating. Some years ago, professors from N.K. Orchid College of Engineering & Technology in rural Solapur, India, partnered with La Fondation Dassault Systèmes – an organization dedicated to transforming the future of education and research – to help establish the Solar Research Centre.

They’re using solar-powered pasteurization and refrigeration to take India’s bountiful sunlight and transform it to electricity to preserve food longer. And a solar-powered milk pasteurization system converts milk to mawa, evaporated milk solids used in making Indian sweets, while a compact solar-powered dehydration system dries fruit and vegetables, prolonging their shelf life. Finally, their solar-powered water pump and water sprinkler is helping with irrigation, as water shortages and diminishing groundwater resources are an ongoing problem.

Elsewhere, the Korean company Sunway is using the 3DEXPERIENCE platform on the cloud to design solar fences installed alongside crops, generating energy without displacing agriculture, important in a country battling food scarcity.

What is the future of solar energy resources?

According to the Solar Futures Study by the U.S. Department of Energy, solar energy is projected to grow significantly, and by 2035, could account for up to 40 percent of the U.S. electric supply. It is expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and with continued technological advancement, will become cheaper and more efficient throughout the world.

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