What happens to solar power when it isn't sunny? A simple question with an amazing answer.

"How does solar energy work when there's no sun?" has been a question for pretty much about as long as solar energy has been a thing.

Of course people wouldn't want solar panels on their houses if installing them meant that, come sunset, the movie they were watching suddenly shut off, forcing them to read by candlelight like colonial settlers. Making solar power a viable option, even when the sun sets or disappears behind some clouds, was one of the first things scientists and engineers had to figure out.

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images.


When the first devices that could capture the sun's energy were invented, they weren't very efficient.

Much like touch screens or video chatting or Dorito-flavored taco shells, solar power is one of those perfect ideas that took a while to get just right. Believe it or not, the earliest solar devices were introduced in the 1800s.

In 1878, Augustin Mouchot invented a device that could freeze water using the concentrated power of the sun. It was a cool experiment but not exactly reasonable or viable options for large-scale energy production.

No one wants this on the roof of their house. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mouchot won a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris for his invention, but his device was gigantic, and coal was quickly becoming the go-to for efficient energy, so it didn't catch on.

The other downside to his invention? The solar-powered water-freezer only worked on (you guessed it) sunny days. But, that was 1878. Things have changed a lot since then.

Over the last century, the efficiency and feasibility of solar power has dramatically increased, and it's getting better every day.

Just look at this fun, easy-to-read chart!

OH GOD, MY EYES! Photo via National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

I know, I know, it's a lot to take in. Just know that it's showing you that since 1975, we've gotten better and better at efficiently converting the sun's rays into energy that can power our homes, businesses, and even a few cars and planes.

So how does solar energy keep providing power when the sun goes down?

The answer is pretty simple: storage.

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

Today's solar panels are designed to soak up more energy from the sun than we actually need and store it for later.

The way they do it is pretty amazing. Photons (aka light particles) hit the solar panel really hard — so hard that electrons (aka what electricity is made of) get knocked loose. Then the solar panel guides those loose electrons into a battery or superconductor that can store them. If an area has a reliable electricity grid, homeowners can just hook their solar panels right up to it. For them, nothing changes from their normal source of power except (usually) a smaller electricity bill.

A lot of people don't realize that going solar doesn't have to mean going "off grid," says Dan Whitson, solar manager for Green Audit USA in Long Island, N.Y.

"The grid is pretty reliable here, so battery options aren’t necessarily cost-effective on Long Island," Whitson explained over the phone. "But that’s something we have to explain to homeowners that, you know, you’re still going to be connected to the grid even though you’ve gone solar."

If there are solar panels on your roof, it's not like your PlayStation is plugged directly into them. The solar panels run into your regular power lines and help offset some of the energy cost, or they run into a box that will store the electricity, quite literally, for a rainy day.

Solar farms are power-plant-scale versions of this concept.

A solar power plant in China. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

They can be built in the middle of a desert where the sun is incredibly powerful and cloudy days are rare. The panels can even pivot automatically to follow the sun's path across the sky.

After the panels soak up as much energy as they can, the energy is transported to nearby cities. There's a solar farm in Austin, Texas, that produces enough power for 5,000 homes and offsets over 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

Oh and, yes, solar panels can still collect energy on cloudy days. They're just not as efficient about it.

That's because clouds don't block all the sunlight, just some of it. If you walk outside on a cloudy day and can still see, that's because there's still sunlight, even if it's a bit more muted than usual.

The sun is unstoppable. Photo via iStock.

That's where storage and the grid come in. Energy companies rely on the grid to offset any dips in production they might experience on a cloudy day.

"All of the reputable solar production calculators out there take in 20 to 30 years of weather data based on region," Whitson said. "So they can predict how much sun you’re going to get throughout the course of a year. Most projections are taking into consideration that it’s not going to be sunny every day."

Also, as previously mentioned, efficiency is one of the key things scientists are constantly trying to improve about solar panels.

"How does solar energy work when there's no sun?" is a simple question that cuts right to the core of a pretty huge idea.

It's the type of question that scientists, engineers, researchers, and experts around the world have to ask every single day in order to get better at what they're doing.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images.

It's the type of question that brought solar energy from an obscure experiment to a feasible source of electricity that powers millions of homes around the world.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less