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Solar energy is one of the most useful forms of renewable energy because solar panels and the sun's own energy can be harnessed directly. Technically, solar energy is the radiant light and heat energy produced by the sun as it sends off massive energy from constant nuclear fusion. Here on Earth, though, solar energy is harnessed via "solar collectors" that convert light energy into more usable heat energy. Solar thermal collectors snatch up the heat by absorbing sunlight and solar radiation. Solar collectors can, in fact, refer to a number of different devices designed to harness the sun's energy. Roof-mounted solar hot water panels and solar air heaters are what a lot of homeowners might already be familiar with; concentrated solar power plants use more sophisticated and industrial-strength solar collectors. Concentrated Solar Power Plants and Residential Solar Options Concentrated solar power plants collect solar energy in a slightly different way. Solar towers and solar thermal collector dishes, which look similar to satellite dishes, are the two ways that concentrated solar power plants generate electricity by heating liquids that, in turn, power turbines aligned with electric generators. The fossil fuels that powered the industrial revolution did a great job of bringing greater infrastructure, communication, transportation and technology to the 20th century. The 21st century, though, will see renewables like solar, wind and geothermal playing a much more dominant role. Some people think ill of solar radiation (infrared and ultraviolet), but it can benevolently be used to power the lives of literally billion of people around the world. Solar Thermal and Photovoltaic Solar Power Roof-mounted solar hot water panels, photovoltaic modules and concentrated solar power plants can provide that much-needed energy. The two kinds of solar power harnessed today are solar thermal and solar photovoltaic. The first kind of solar energy—solar thermal—is what most people automatically think of when they think of solar power. Solar thermal systems convert sunlight into thermal energy with the help of solar panels. So, what exactly are solar thermal systems good for? A lot of things that homeowners would find useful, as it happens. Solar thermal systems can be put towards space heating as well as heating water via a solar hot water system. Solar photovoltaic systems, on the other hand, entail converting sunlight directly into electricity with the assistance of photovoltaic cells. (Photovoltaics is the conversion of light—in this case, sunlight—into electricity with semiconductors and the photovoltaic effect.) Photovoltaic systems can be incorporated into homes, electric vehicles and green building designs to ensure energy independence and overall energy savings. The best part is that solar panels are incredibly reliable, need little maintenance and can last up to thirty years when you purchase from a reliable solar panel manufacturer. At the outside, solar panels only lose about half a percentage of their performance per year, which means that even after a generation, your home solar panels will still be harnessing solar energy at approximately 90% efficiency compared to when you originally installed them! The other nice thing about solar is that the Consolidated Appropriations Act provides homeowners a 30% personal tax credit for home PV and solar thermal technology purchases. Solar Power and Your Energy Bills Solar energy facilities are right now actually using something known as "concentrated solar power" to do things like boil water and convert sunlight more directly into electricity. Utility-sized solar energy uses concentrated solar power systems, power towers and dish engines to deliver megawatts of usable electricity to homes and businesses around the country. Solar energy is but one of the amazing forms of green energy out there today—renewable energy sources like wind, rain, geothermal, and hydro (water) energy are also part of the green energy picture. As you look at data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration you'll see that the eight most popular green energy sources of energy have all experienced an increase in usage over the last three years. How Much Can You Really Save? On a smaller scale, you and your family can expect to save a significant amount of money from month to month on your energy expenses by outfitting your home with roof solar panels. The exact amount that you save will have a lot to do with the region of the country that you're located in, possible buyback plans with utility companies in your area, the amount of electricity that your family uses, and the number and efficiency of your home solar panels. The cool thing about solar power is that there are a lot of tax rebate incentives for siding with solar, and solar power might even allow your family to send your electrical meter spinning backward. How? Although you can, of course, still take all the energy that you need from the utility grid in your area, after installing solar panels there's a good chance that you can become energy-independent. Perhaps, at that point, you might even sell back excess energy to your utility company for credit! That can potentially save you thousands of dollars per year since, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling constitute the largest energy expenses for most homes. Remember, solar energy is great for space heating. Save Year Round...and Sidestep Peak Rates The important thing to bear in mind with solar energy and your potential to save thousands every year on your energy expenses is that solar power systems consistently produce the best results when the sun is shining brightest.