What Does ‘Solar Energy’ Mean Exactly?

Illustration of how the greenhouse effect works

The term “solar power” and “solar energy” are bandied around in our increasingly environmentally-conscious world, but what do they mean from a scientific perspective?

Let’s get into the weeds on solar energy, what it is, how it works, and why you and Mother Earth might benefit from using it to power your home or business.

What is solar energy?

In a nutshell, “solar energy” refers to any type of energy emitted from the sun, the gigantic burning ball of gas that lights our solar system. Solar energy is generated through a process called nuclear fusion, as explained by the US Department of Energy:

“In a fusion reaction, two light nuclei merge to form a single heavier nucleus. The process releases energy because the total mass of the resulting single nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei. The leftover mass becomes energy.”

Source: US Department of Energy

Basically, two light nuclei smash into each other, merge, and fuse, which releases energy as a result. Scientists have learned how to harness and transform that energy into other more usable forms of energy such as electricity to power, for instance, all sorts of home appliances from refrigerators to air conditioners to pool heaters.

How much solar energy does the sun produce?

It’s difficult to fathom how much energy is available from the sun. Every single second, through a PP (proton-proton) chain reaction, the sun’s core fuses approximately 620 million metric tons of hydrogen. The temperature at the center of the sun is about 7 million degrees Fahrenheit.

All that energy dissipates from the sun in the form of light particles and waves as electromagnetic radiation (EMR). Much of it reaches Earth, where it drives wind and weather events and, most importantly, provides crucial energy to plants, bacteria and algae which convert sunlight into sugar.

Organisms that produce food directly from the sun are called autotrophs. The process, which you might recall from biology class, is known as photosynthesis. Water, light, and carbon dioxide go in, and oxygen and sugar go out.


Plants and other producers rely on sunlight to thrive; the animals that eat either plants (herbivores) or other animals (carnivores) or both (omnivores) rely either directly or indirectly on plants to sustain themselves.

The sun, therefore, is quite literally the giver of life; without it, life on Earth would cease to exist. That’s why virtually all ancient cultures — from the Chinese to the Mayans to the early Christians – venerated the sun.

(The sun, ironically and interestingly, is responsible for the development of fossil fuels via photosynthesis. Ancient autotrophs, about 3 billion years ago, evolved in water. They died and, due to a combination of pressure and heat and time, eventually became oil, coal, and natural gas.)

What is the greenhouse effect?

About 30% of the sun’s energy that hits the Earth is reflected back into space. The remaining 70% is retained within the Earth’s atmosphere, creating the “greenhouse effect” in which greenhouse gases like water and carbon dioxide trap the heat radiating back to the atmosphere from the Earth’s surface, creating a warming effect.

(The greenhouse effect works in much the same way as a literal greenhouse does in terms of how it traps heat to create a more welcoming environment for vegetation and, by extension, animal life.)

The future of solar energy

Solar panels, which turn solar energy into electricity, are among the many new-age energy efficiency products like:

  • LED lightbulbs
  • smart appliances
  •  power strips
  • smart thermostats
  • charging stations

All of these are powerful tools for streamlining energy consumption, using less and getting more out of every kilowatt hour.

However, solar energy stands alone among them as the undisputed king of energy efficiency and conservation because the sun is the world’s one true renewable resource.

Solar power’s future is bright. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory explains that the industry is expected to boom in the next 2-3 decades:

“The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects solar energy could provide 45% of the electricity in the United States by 2050 if the energy system is fully decarbonized—and technology costs are projected to continue to decline.”

Solar panels work by capturing sunlight (usually from their perch on top of the roof) via photovoltaic (PV) cells, and then converting it into electricity. Critically, high-quality solar panel systems, like the ones available through Compass Solar, generate electricity in this manner even on cloudy days – although the output will be slightly lower than it would be in full sunlight. Fortunately, in sunny Florida, we enjoy plenty of bright sunlight year-round.

Switch to solar energy to reduce your carbon footprint

Solar energy’s main benefit – aside from potentially saving home and business owners cash on their monthly power bills – is that it reduces the user’s carbon footprint, defined as “the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.

Among other reasons, reducing our collective carbon footprint matters because excess carbon dioxide drives climate change and contributes in large part to increasingly extreme weather events – for instance, Hurricane Ian that recently ravaged Southwest Florida:

“Storms like Ian are more likely because of human-caused climate change. Heat is the fuel that makes hurricanes big, powerful and rainy… The air gets hotter, and the ocean water gets hotter. When a baby hurricane forms in the Atlantic, all that heat is available to help the storm grow.”


According to data from the climate change organization Cool Effect, “The solar panel’s carbon footprint is roughly 20 times less than the carbon output of coal-powered electricity sources.”

If you’re interested in figuring out how much carbon you typically use on any given day, use this handy tool to calculate your carbon footprint. You might be surprised by what it shows.

Contact Compass Solar to learn more about solar power

To learn more about the exciting and rapidly evolving world of solar power (and how you can use it to power your home or business), don’t hesitate to contact us.

To get a feel for how our work has benefited our many Florida and Alabama customers over the years, check out our testimonials page