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Professor Quester Answers
Questions on Solar Energy

Dear Professor Quester:
Will there ever be a cordless computer like some of our phones? Thanks for any help or information you can give me! (Sara Woelfel, 7th grade, West Seneca, New York)

The Professor Answers:
Actually there already are cordless computers. They use batteries and solar cells (like what are used on satellites). A couple of years ago, I had a laptop computer. I found a company called Keep It Simple Software that sold a solar panel that could power my laptop. The man who invented this solar panel for laptops did it for his wife who was a fire lookout person out in the middle of a forest. She had no electricity where she worked, but she needed to have a laptop. So he took a solar panel that has a lot of solar cells on it and made it so it could run a laptop computer. He now makes and sells those for a number of different computer models.

Another type of computer that is cordless is a small hand calculator. It is also a "computer". As a matter of fact, the calculators you can hold in your hand today are more powerful than the big computers back in the 1940s and 1950s that filled entire rooms. Many hand calculators today don't use batteries. They are run by small solar cells.

So, you see....we already have "cordless" computers.

Dear Dr. Q:
I found your internet site very helpful in finding information for my solar energy term paper. I would like to know if you could provide me with any information about the early developments of solar energy in the west. This information would be greatly appreciated. (Chanell Bates, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Washington D.C.)

The Professor Answers:
I can tell you a little about California's solar history.

In the 1890s solar water heaters were first used in California. They proved to be a big improvement over previous methods of heating water over wood and coal-burning stoves. Although coal gas and electricity were available, it was costly and there were no gas or electric water heaters. By 1897, 30% of homes in Pasadena (in southern California) were equipped with solar water heaters (called the Climax). As mechanical improvements were made, solar systems were put to use in Arizona, Florida and other sunny parts of the U.S. By 1920, 10,000 solar water heaters had been sold in California, but by then large deposits of oil (for use in power plants to produce electricity) and natural gas (to displace artificial coal gas) were discovered in the west. When these low cost fuels became available, solar systems (at least 60,000 sold nationally) were put out of business. During the 1970s, again when oil prices were climbing and the mid-East countries put an oil embargo on oil to the US, solar again began seeing a new life. California offered a 55% tax credit for solar systems purchased by businesses and homeowners. By the 1980s new, large solar thermal power plants were beginning to be built in the state and photovoltaic power plants were started as demonstration facilities. Generating electricity by solar (either a thermal facility or photovoltaic) is still more expensive than using natural gas. California doesn't generate electricity using much oil (less than 1%) so solar's competition is natural gas and hydro. Today, about 11% of California's total electricity system is from renewable energy (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass) Less the 1% is solar. Hope this helps.

Dear Dr. Q:
I need this answered ASAP(!) This is a matter of life and/or death! I need information on Solar Water Heaters. HELP! I need some articles and sites. Can you PLEASE help? Also, how do you build a GOOD one? (Bonnie)

The Professor Answers:
There are several kinds of solar water heaters from something as simple as a vinyl bag with a hose attached, hung in the sun that is used for taking showers while camping, to what's called a simple bread box, to the more sophisticated solar flat panels that pump water through small tubes sealed in a metal and glass panel.

Dear Dr. Q:
What is solar energy used for mostly? (Braden and Daniel, 5th grade, Lafayette)

The Professor Answers:
Actually, The Energy Story at this address could give you a better look at solar energy than I could (and it has pictures). Write me with any more questions you have after reading it.

Dear Dr. Quester:
Are solar panels hot to the touch? (Jim, Lafayette, CA)

The Professor Answers:
If you're referring to solar panels for heating water or generating electricity...yes they are hot during the day. At night they can cool off.

Dear Dr. Q:
I have some questions for you!
  1. Who invented solar panels?
  2. Can solar energy be used as energy for any instrument (like a toy) that needs energy?
  3. Does solar energy have any bad parts about it, except that it isn't always sunny?<
  4. Why aren't people using solar energy more?
(Jim, 5th grade, Lafayette, CA)

The Professor Answers:

  1. I don't know who invented solar hot water panels however a company around the 1890s marketed the Climax Solar Collector in southern California and Florida. About half of the homes in Pasadena, California had these solar systems to heat their water. People stopped using them when water heaters were manufactured and the utility companies offered cheap electricity and natural gas.

  2. If you are thinking about toys that use batteries, then yes, solar photovoltaic cells (PV) can be used to run toys that require a battery. It would be more expensive to use them in place of some batteries however I've seen cars, watches, radios and lots of things that are run from batteries. There are a couple of stores on the Internet that sell these items. Check them out so you can see how PVs are used on toys.

  3. Any technology has some "bad" or negative impacts on the environment. Solar thermal uses toxic chemicals for its heating fluid when generating electricity. Solar power plants also use lots of land for the collectors. To make PV cells, manufacturers use toxic materials and other resources to manufacture them. Generally, though, solar is a cleaner way to generate electricity because it has no air pollution and it uses a "renewable" energy source so there's no drilling or mining. Check out The Energy Story on Energy Quest at for more information.

  4. Probably because electricity and natural gas are cheap and it's more expensive to produce electricity using solar technology. The price is coming down but it still costs more. The good news is that solar costs less than nuclear to generate electricity.

As more and more students (and future decision makers) become educated about renewable energy and its positive effects on our environment, then we may begin to see more of our electricity produced with renewables.

Dear Dr. Q:
How long has solar energy been in use in California? In the U.S.A? (Jim, 5th grade, Lafayette, CA)

The Professor Answers:
Well, if you count drying clothes by the sun and letting cut hay dry and other food dry by the sun, then solar has been in use in California and the rest of the United States since there have been people here.

Around the 1890's, solar water heaters were used a lot in California and Florida. There were thousands of these solar collectors on the rooftops of homes, helping to heat water for cooking, clothes washing and bathing. Remember, at that time water needed to be heated on a wood or coal burning stove so it was a lot of work to take a bath. The solar collectors heated the water without a stove. When electricity and natural gas became cheap, the collectors were no longer used.

A more technical advancement is using solar energy to generate electricity. Most of this technical was developed in California in the 1970s. In the Energy Story at you can find out more information about thermal electric solar and photovoltaic (PV) energy.

If YOU have a question about energy, send your question by e-mail to "Professor Quester."
Ask your parents or teacher first before sending an e-mail. Please tell us your grade level, the name of your school and your city. We will usually respond within four or five days.

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Page updated: May 17, 2002
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