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Curious about solar power? Here's a primer

As consumer demand for cleaner energy continues to grow, the installation of solar panels for residential and commercial buildings has become more common. 

Solar-energy systems are being installed on the roofs of single-family homes and businesses, and utilities are building large solar facilities, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If you're curious about solar, here are a few facts to get you started.

Solar's potential

The amount of sunlight that strikes the earth's surface in an hour and a half is enough to handle the world's energy needs for one year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Solar technology continues to improve as the market demands more use of clean energy resources.

When did the capture of solar energy begin?

The first solar cell was built by Bell Laboratories in 1954, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The space industry was one of the first to use solar technology, using solar panels to provide power to spacecraft. 

What are common types of solar technology?

There are two types of solar technologies.

1. The first is for capturing energy on a small scale, such as the rooftops of homes and businesses. The technical term for these systems is photovoltaic (PV). When sun shines on the panels, photons from the sun are absorbed by the panels and an electrical field is created.

2. The second method is for the large-scale generation of energy. You may have noticed these solar facilities, which are built low-to-the-ground and cover a large area. This method is called concentrating solar power (CSP). The technology uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat, which can then be used to produce electricity.

The world's largest CSP facility is the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert in California.

How is the power from residential solar panels used?

In most cases, households that use solar power are connected to the grid. The solar power from a home system is used to supply a household's energy needs. If the household doesn't use all of the power, it's automatically returned to the grid and the property owner receives a credit. If the household needs more power than the solar generates, the power is taken from the grid.

This process is called "net metering," and 44 states require its availability, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Texas is not one of those states, but private companies have begun creating energy marketplaces in the state.

How long does it take for solar panels to pay off?

This is the first question that many people ask. Most residential solar installations are paid for within 10 to 13 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

If you have questions about incorporating solar power into a construction project or an existing building, contact an attorney who focuses on construction legal issues.

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