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Solar Energy

Energy from the sun is powerful and useful. People harness the sun’s energy in many ways, from growing plants for food to solar panels for electricity generation.

While investigating the power of the sun, students will explore benefits of solar power in the photosynthesis of plants, discuss methods of protecting themselves from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation, explore solar thermal energy by examining a radiometer, and play with a solar UFO. Student can also explore solar power further by creating a solar oven, and using photovoltaic cells to power small motors.

List of activities

Will it Wilt?
Light Patterns
UV Beads
Solar Relay
Solar UFOs
Solar Oven
Radiometer
Solar Panels and Motors

Objectives

  • Identify the sun as the main source of the earth’s energy.

  • Identify methods of protecting themselves from harmful solar radiation.

  • Demonstrate ways to convert solar energy into thermal energy and mechanical energy.

Materials

  • see individual activities for materials.

Background

Every second, the sun gives off more energy than humans have used in all of history. Solar energy is electromagnetic radiation (including infrared, visible and ultraviolet light) released by thermonuclear reactions in the core of the sun.

Only about one billionth of the sun’s energy ever reaches the earth (174 petawatts (PW)) at the upper atmosphere. Approximately 30% of this energy is directly reflected back into space. The rest is absorbed by clouds, oceans and land masses.

With a few exceptions (e.g. nuclear energy, geothermal energy), solar energy is the source of all energy used by humans.
Indirect forms of solar energy include:

  • hydroelectricity
  • ocean thermal energy
  • tidal energy
  • wind energy.

The sun also powers the process of photosynthesis, the original source of the energy contained in biomass, peat, coal and petroleum (oil and gas). Usually, however, the term solar energy refers to the portion of the sun’s radiant energy harnessed directly, such as through solar panels.

Solar technologies include active and passive solar techniques:

Active Solar techniques include things such as using photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors to convert sunlight into useful outputs.

Passive Solar techniques include things such as orienting a building to the sun and designing spaces that naturally circulate air.

Solar power is often the conversion of sunlight into electricity.
Sunlight can be converted directly into electricity using photovoltaics (PV). Photovoltaics were initially used to power small and medium-sized applications, from the calculator powered by a single solar cell to off-grid homes powered by a photovoltaic array. Solar energy can also be converted indirectly to electricity with concentrating solar power (CSP) systems. CSPs normally focus the sun’s energy to boil water and create steam which is then used to provide power to a generator.

Vocabulary

Energy – The ability to do work.
Solar – Having to do with the sun.
Solar energy – Energy from the sun.
Ultraviolet radiation / Ultraviolet light – Also known as UV radiation/UV light. The sun emits many wavelengths of light, but it’s the ultraviolet waves that cause sunburn. UV light is not visible to humans.
Photosynthesis– The process plants use to make their own food from sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Atmosphere -A thin layer of gas that surrounds the earth. The atmosphere gives us air to breathe and protects us from harmful solar radiation.
Thermal Energy – Heat energy.
Mechanical Energy-Energy in moving things.
Electric Current -Moving electrons.
Pressure -How much an object is pushed on.
Photovoltaic cell -Solar cell which changes light energy into electrical energy. The word “photovoltaic” comes from 2 words. “Photo” refers to light and “voltaic” refers to electricity.

Other Resources

National Energy Board of Canada | About Renewable Energy

British Columbia Sustainable Energy | Solar Photovoltaic

The Canadian Encyclopedia | Solar Energy

 BC Hyoro | Conservation

BC Hydro | Sustainability