15 February 2003

Harnessing Solar Energy

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The price of oil is going through the roof. There is concern about the protection of the environment and public health. These factors mean that we should look to renewable energy sources, which we already have at our disposal

One good way of helping the environment is to put what we call ‘solar panels’ onto the roofs of buildings. When the sun is shining these panels trap the rays and turn it into electricity and heat. Because there is always enough sunshine, we do not have to use fuels that can pollute the environment, like oil and gas. But one difficult problem for architects is to work out how many panels are needed on the roof. A new piece of technology called ‘SoDa’ (Solar Radiation Data) can help give the answer.

Maybe you have already been to a house with power that comes from solar panels. There are many across Europe. But in Norway, Germany, and Italy the sun does not shine in equal amounts. It is possible, however, to produce solar energy everywhere. How do we do this? Architects and engineers need to put more panels on the roofs of solar houses in less sunny countries than in countries where the sun shines more often. To calculate the exact number needed, these specialists used to have to do long calculations. Now, with SoDa, they can work out much more quickly the number of solar panels that any particular European house would need.

SoDa has nothing to do with drinks ! It is an information tool – it is a computer programme. ‘Meteorological’ satellites take pictures of the earth and provide SoDa with any data that it finds on solar radiation across Europe and Africa. Engineers and architects can then access this valuable information on SoDa. These days, when they want to build a house and power it with by solar energy, the research only takes a few clicks of the mouse. They enter the latitude and longitude of the place where the house is to be built, the size of the house and the number of families or family members that will live there. After a short while SoDa will let them know the number of panels. It works this out by simply analysing details of the average amount of sunshine for that place in a year.

SoDa has been developed by a group of European Scientists and Engineers and it is the first programme of this kind in the world. The SoDa server has been developed with European Commission financial support as part of its e-environment programme. This programme contains about forty new technology research projects. All of these projects share the same purpose: publicising the work of the Information Society Technologies to European citizens.

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