The sun has produced energy since the time of creation. Solar energy is the sun's rays (solar radiation) that reach the earth.
Solar energy can be converted into other forms of energy, such as heat and electricity. In the 1830s, the British astronomer John Herschel used a solar thermal collector box (a device that absorbs sunlight to collect heat) to cook food during an expedition to Africa. Today, people use the sun's energy for lots of things.
Solar energy can be converted to thermal (or heat) energy and used to:
Heat water – for use in homes, buildings, or swimming pools.
Heat spaces – inside greenhouses, homes, and other buildings.
Solar energy can be converted to electricity in two ways:
Photovoltaic (PV devices) or "solar cells"
Change sunlight directly into electricity. PV systems are often used in remote locations that are not connected to the electric grid. They are also used to power watches, calculators, and lighted road signs.
Solar Power Plants
Indirectly generate electricity when the heat from solar thermal collectors is used to heat a fluid which produces steam that is used to power a generator. Out of the 15 known solar electric generating units operating in the United States at the end of 2006, 10 of these are in California, and 5 in Arizona. No statistics are being collected on solar plants that produce less than 1 megawatt of electricity, so there may be smaller solar plants in a number of other states.