Curiosity

How is the efficiency of solar panels improving?

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Are we getting better at harnessing the sun's energy?

Solar power is big. It's so big, in fact, that the Department of Energy recently promised up to $7 million in funding to support emerging solar technologies [source: DOE]. Harnessing the sun's energy is smart, but not as simple as it sounds.

It might be easier if we really could "harness" the sun, but that bright spot in the sky is elusive. Sometimes it hides behind clouds and, each night, it disappears altogether for hours at a time. The optimal time to mine the sun's energy is when it is highest in the sky, typically during the summer months when we also enjoy longer days with more average sunshine.

The researchers and engineers who design and build solar panels have to work with and around these factors all while devising new ways to not only collect but reserve free and renewable energy from the sun. For example, using mirrors, they've figured out a way to direct sunlight to solar panels even when the sun moves at an angle that normally would keep it from hitting those very panels.

On the next few pages, discover how innovative people are coming up with ways to use one of our most traditional energy sources more efficiently and effectively. You'll learn more about how solar panels can track the sun, how using different building materials increases efficiency and how solar concentrators channel light waves. Finally, you'll learn how "the sky's no limit" when it comes to collecting the sun's power for use here on Earth [source: SSP].

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