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How Does Solar Thermal Energy Work?

Solar thermal energy is the oldest form of solar power, and has been used for centuries, since the time of the Ancient Greeks and possibly even prior to this. Solar thermal energy is the process of using the sun’s rays to produce thermal energy, or energy from heat.

The sun’s thermal energy can be harnessed in a variety of ways for a multitude of different uses: it can be used as heating for homes or other buildings and also to heat water in a solar thermal water heater. The largest solar thermal units can also be used to produce energy with a solar thermal collector

Solar thermal power differs from traditional photovoltaic solar power, where energy is generated directly through the sun’s rays striking PV solar panels. Solar thermal power is much more efficient and effective at producing energy and heat, although the energy produced by this type of solar power is actually created through the use of steam turbines. These steam turbines need to turn to create energy, and they are made to turn by forcing steam through them. 

This steam is created by concentrating the sun’s rays onto a point where the water is located. This heat boils the water and turns it into steam, thus running the turbine to produce electricity.

How Solar Thermal Energy Works

Solar thermal energy takes advantage of the heat which is produced by the sun’s rays for a variety of different uses. Generally speaking, a solar thermal collector is any device or object which absorbs the sun’s thermal energy either for heating or energy creation purposes. Some of these devices are quite simple and can be built at home, while larger concentrated solar thermal collectors are used to generate energy in solar power stations.

Uses of Solar Thermal Energy

  • Solar Thermal Water Heaters

  • Concentrated Solar Thermal Collector
  • Solar Thermal Cookers
  • Solar Thermal Heating for Buildings

Uses of Solar Thermal Water Heaters

solar pool heaterSolar thermal water heaters fall into the category of low to medium temperature solar thermal collectors, and can be used to provide hot water for your home. Solar thermal water heaters can be very simple devices: in the simplest type, water is stored in a black tank which absorbs the sun’s rays and heat to slowly raise the temperature of the water in the tank. 

This type of solar thermal collector is starting to be more and more common and can be used in any warm areas of the world. 

However, the most common type of solar thermal water heater is a solar thermal pool heater. These typically consist of flat plates which are placed in the sun’s light and then transfer the heat they collect into the pool. 

Solar thermal pool heaters are normally considered low temperature collectors, while those more complicated solar thermal water heaters that are used to heat water for use in residential and commercial applications are considered medium temperature collectors, as they sometimes utilize more flat panels or other solar collectors for heating.

Uses of Concentrated Solar Thermal Collectors

Concentrated solar thermal collectors usually consist of a large array or mirrors or other reflective panels, which redirect and focus the sun’s energy on a concentrated focal point. This focal point can generate temperatures in excess of 3,500 degrees Celsius. This type of solar thermal collector is used for many of the large scale solar power plants that can be found all around the world. 

andasolThe largest solar thermal collector in the world is the solar furnace at Odeillo, in the French Pyrenees, which is capable of producing temperatures over 3,800 degrees Celsius. However, this collector is mainly used for research purposes. 

The largest solar thermal collector used for energy generation is the Andasol solar thermal power station near Guadix, in the Andalusia region of Spain, which only recently started fully functioning in December of 2011. 

This plant is capable of producing around 150 megawatts of electricity, which makes it the largest single solar power station in the world, although there are several other plants currently under construction or in the planning stages, which will be able to generate much more power than Andasol is currently capable of producing. 

The majority of solar thermal power plants utilize an array of mirrors to generate extreme heat at their focal point. In turn, this heat is used to boil water which then provides steam to power a steam turbine, thus creating large amounts of energy. These work in the same general way as many other traditional power plants, except that the steam is provided through solar power instead of burning fossil fuels, which is the traditional method of producing steam to power the turbines. 

Solar Thermal Cookers Explained

solar thermal cookerAnother use of solar thermal technology that has been around for centuries is a solar thermal cooker. These are quite simple devices which reflect the sun’s energy and trap this energy inside a box or some other structure, which is then used to cook or boil water. 

These devices range from incredibly simple and easy to build DIY solar cookers, to very expensive, complicated units which are capable of cooking food much quicker. These cookers usually fall into the low to medium temperature range of solar thermal collectors. Solar thermal cookers are quite useful for camping or in case of emergencies.

Heating your Building with Solar Thermal Power

Solar thermal power can also be used to provide heating, ventilation, and even cooling for residential and commercial buildings. These devices take a number of different forms, ranging from very simple passive solar heating to solar air heat collectors and solar radiant heating units. These different heating units all rely on the same principle of collecting the heat from the sun and then transferring this heat in order to provide heating for the building.

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