Solar energy technology converts the ubiquitous energy of the sun into electricity through the use of photovoltaic cells and solar-thermal technology, as well as low temperature solar collectors.
Photovoltaic cells use wafers made of silicon or other conductive materials to release electricity when sunlight meets the wafers. These cells are common in household use and at the production-scale of photovoltaic power plants, of which many of the largest are located in Europe. Solar-thermal technology uses mirrors to concentrate the sun's thermal energy and create heat, which can be used to create steam and turn a turbine or drive a heat engine, creating electricity. Low temperature solar collectors simply use the sun's heat energy directly for facility heating purposes, including hot water heating. This type of energy collection can be seen in industrial and commercial facilities as well as residential structures.
Advantages: ubiquitous and renewable
Solar energy is a form of renewable energy that can be made available anywhere on earth as long as there is access to sunlight. It is a "clean" energy source that does not release any greenhouse gases as byproducts.
Disadvantages: cost of production and land use considerations
The incoming energy from the sun exceeds all of the earth's energy needs, but the high manufacturing cost of the materials and technology needed to build solar cells and their relatively low efficiency are challenges that must be overcome in order to take full advantage of solar energy technology. In addition, habitat impacts, ecosystem effects, and land use considerations must be evaluated for large-scale solar development. These effects can usually be ameliorated by proper siting and design.
Tsoutsos, T. , Frantzeskaki, N. and Gekas, V. 2005. Environmental impacts from the solar energy technologies. Energy Policy 33: 289-296.
US Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Energy Program
US Department of Energy: Energy Explained