Chances are, you’ve heard of solar energy or solar power before. You probably know the basic idea: a solar panel takes radiation from the sun and turns it into energy in the form of electricity or heat for our buildings. But how? And how does this help you? We will answer these questions and more in our short lesson below. Welcome to Solar 101, as presented by the Solar Unified Network of Western PA, or SUNWPA.

The Sun

It all starts with the sun. Our sun is a star that burns hydrogen, producing an enormous amount of energy. How big is the sun? According to the Universe Today, the sun makes up 99.86% of all mass in our solar system! The sun produces energy, but how does that energy reach the earth? The sun is basically a giant nuclear reactor more than one million times larger than Earth. As it burns the hydrogen, it generates radiation in many forms, including heat that we can feel and light that we see. This radiation travels in all directions and a very tiny amount will be absorbed by the Earth. After about eight minutes from leaving the sun, the energy hits the earth and warms our planet. This energy is used by plants to grow and can be harnessed by people in a variety of ways.

Solar Energy

Using energy from the sun helps us reduce the amount of energy we use from other sources, like electricity from a coal-fired power plant, natural gas, or gasoline. How we collect that energy depends on what it is being used for. You are probably familiar with the solar panel which is the most likely form of capturing this energy. These panels are usually a shiny rectangular object that powers calculators or are placed on the roof of a building. However, there are many types of solar energy collection systems that use solar to provide electricity. The next section will explain various forms of solar energy.

Arguably, the most basic form of solar is called Passive Solar and is as simple as using the heat from the sun. A building’s layout and design can be directed to make the best use of that heat. In hot climates, you might want to minimize how much heat gets trapped inside. However, it would make sense to trap as much heat as possible in a colder climate.

Another type of solar energy is solar hot water. Because heat is absorbed quickly by dark colors, fluids can be heated with a small system of tubes backed by dark, absorbing plates. The water is heated and can be used in a variety of applications like swimming, bathing, or heating your home.

On a much larger scale, the sun’s heat can be directed through a system of curved mirrors to heat water to a very high temperature, causing it to boil. The boiling water will produce steam, which can turn turbines to create electricity in a system called Concentrated Solar Thermal. This is usually used on a large scale to provide a lot of power.

Finally, we have photovoltaics, which is the process used by solar panels to create electricity. In recent years, this technology has improved tremendously and we now have solar panels that come in a variety of shapes and colors. Prices have also dropped dramatically, making solar panels a viable and cost-effective way to generate electricity.


The main purpose of solar power is to provide energy for people to use. Our goal at SUNWPA is to help you find the best solution for your energy needs through solar power. One of the most common solutions is to provide electricity through solar panels.

Solar electricity is produced in direct current, also known as DC, which is different from alternating current, AC, the power we get in our homes. However, all batteries use DC making solar an excellent way to charge a battery. DC power can also be easily converted to AC for generating power anywhere electricity is needed. So, when we say AC/DC, unfortunately we’re not talking about the band (Thunderstruck?) but types of electricity.

Solar electricity can be on-grid or off-grid, but what is the grid? According to the Department of Energy, the grid is a “network of power plants and transformers connected by more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines” that transports electricity into our communities for everyday usage such as lights, heating or cooling, and most things that require power. It is interesting to note that most electronics, like your TV, cell phone, and computer all use DC power, but are converted to AC to charge from the grid. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to power them from DC in the first place?

Solar power can be collected with solar panels and converted to AC and put on the grid with an inverter. Inverters are used to take incoming energy from solar panels and alter it to produce the correct type of energy needed by a particular device, like a lamp or computer. This setup would be considered an on-grid system.
What if you aren’t near an electric line? You can store the power generated by solar panels with a battery and use the inverter to produce the electricity you need. This is an off-grid system and many people can use this to power devices without any additional electricity cost.

Solar at Work

It’s been made clear from this information that there are many types of solar power for different applications and that this power can be used by just about any device that needs energy. But how does this help you? Putting an on-grid solar unit on your home or office can reduce or eliminate your electricity bill. If you need power where there isn’t an electric outlet, an off-grid solar unit can be the easiest and most affordable way to provide power.

If solar is so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? You might be surprised to learn many people are already utilizing solar power in some way. In fact, the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that there are currently more than 471 solar-related companies in Pennsylvania alone employing more than 2,100 people. As a state there are approximately 245 megawatts of solar installed, powering more than 30,000 homes. (245 megawatts can power more than 16 million 15-watt light bulbs!) While that is a lot of solar, we still have a long way to go.

Even in Pittsburgh

Many people incorrectly believe that solar is not an option in Pittsburgh because of the clouds. In reality, the sun’s radiation can pass through most clouds, producing energy on less than sunny days. Also, adding a few extra solar panels to the system should offset any loss of energy from clouds. Still not convinced? Just ask one of the many local institutions that are already using solar right here in Pittsburgh.
Please explore the rest of our site to learn more about how solar can work for you. We are happy to answer any other questions you might have about solar. Thank you for your interest, we look forward to helping you find the right solution for your energy needs!