What is solar energy?
Solar energy and solar power are actually two different things, though we often use them interchangeably. Solar energy is light and heat that comes from the sun. Solar power, on the other hand, is the conversion of solar energy into electricity. Generally, we use the term solar energy loosely because we now have many technologies (solar panels, solar thermal power plants, solar shingles, and so many more) that capture that solar energy and turn it into electricity.
However, these “active” solar technologies are not the only way to tap solar energy. We can also make use of solar energy in simpler ways by orienting our buildings or gardens towards the sun in a beneficial way, using materials with good thermal mass, and in other “passive” ways.
Here on CleanTechnica, we are primarily focused on active solar energy technologies. These technologies make it possible to transition our society from one based on dirty, fossil-fuel-based electricity (a leading cause of global warming) to one based on widely abundant clean energy.
How abundant is solar energy?
Solar energy is tremendously more abundant than any other energy source on the planet. Note that in the graphic below, the potential from renewable energy resources is represented in yearly potential, while the potential from finite energy sources (i.e. coal, natural gas, and so on) is from total known recoverable reserves.
Shocking how much more solar energy is available compared to other sources, isn’t it?
Can we collect solar energy and turn it into electricity cheaply?
This is a topic I focus on a lot more on our solar power page, so head on over there if you want to learn more, but simply put: “Yes, solar power is already a cheap power option.” Solar is cost-competitive in a growing number of regions, not even taking important external costs of fossil fuels (such as health costs, grid security costs, global warming costs, and other environmental costs) into account. Here’s a video on that matter: