Think GREEN – Utilizing Renewable Solar Energy

solar energy from the Sun

Image courtesy NASA

To use satellite data to help determine greatest renewable energy potentials in any given region and to develop skills in graphing and reading graphs
Grade Level: 7 – 12
Estimated Time for Completing Activity: 50 minutes
Learning Outcomes:
  • Contrast amounts of solar energy with average cloud coverage in a given area in order to determine the most efficient location for establishing a solar collector
  • Identify different climate regions
  • Access data and import into Excel
  • Identify appropriate uses and locations for a solar collector
  • Explain how using solar energy can benefit society
  • Familiarity with producing graphs in Excel
  • Familiarity with map recognition, latitude and longitude
  • Some understanding of different types of power sources (see Links)
  • Some understanding of a solar collector
  • Familiarity with clouds
  • Computer with Internet access and Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet software
  • Map or Atlas
AP Environmental Science Topics
  • Environmental advantages and disadvantages of natural gas
  • Seasons, solar intensity, latitude
  • Solar electricity
  • Solar energy
  • Wind Power
Lesson Links:

Solar energy is radiant energy that is produced by the Sun. Every day the Sun radiates an enormous amount of energy. How much solar energy a place on Earth receives depends on several conditions. Most importantly, it depends on latitude (as it relates to the season of the year and the amount of daylight hours), but also the clearness or cloudiness of the sky.

In this lesson, you will explore real NASA satellite data for energy from the Sun and cloud cover for your area to determine if you can harness this solar energy, a renewable energy source, by using a solar collector.

A solar collector is one way to collect heat from the sun. A closed car on a sunny day is like a solar collector. As sunlight passes through the car’s glass window, it is absorbed by the seat covers, walls, and floor of the car. The light that is absorbed changes into heat. The car’s glass windows let light in, but don’t let all the heat out. This is also why greenhouses work so well and stay warm year-round.

For more information on this subject, go to The NEED Project link under Lesson Links. The two links under Lesson Links to the Energy Kids Place sites provide discussions of renewable and non-renewable resources.


You will need to gather data on solar energy in your area.

Step 1: Find the Latitude and Longitude of your school. You will need your school address. See latitude and longitude converter under Lesson Links.

Here is an example: from geocoder (see Lesson Links)
latitude: decimal: 35.503126 deg-min-sec 35 30 11.2536
longitude: decimal: -97.525617 deg-min-sec -97 31 32.2212 or 262.474383 E

Round your numbers to four decimal places. A negative longitude means from the West instead of East. On the example you see you can use 97.5256 W or subtract from 360 and use 262.4744 E.

Using the example, the latitude reads 35.5031 N and the longitude 97.5256 W.

Step 2: Go to the MY NASA DATA Live Access Server (Basic Edition) (see Lesson Links).
Choose Energy from the Sun and click the circle left of Energy from the Sun (Clear Sky)
Select ‘Time Series’ from the options below the map on the left
Enter the latitude and longitude over on the right.
Select time range: Jul-2003 to Jul-2004
You now have the data for the average monthly amount of solar energy from the Sun (with a clear sky, that is if there are no clouds) for your area.

Step 3: You are going to transfer this information into an Excel program.
Open a blank Excel worksheet.
Copy the information. If you have questions on how this is done, click on the link titled ‘MY NASA DATA – Using Imported Data In Excel: Plot Atmospheric Temperature (Word file)’ under Lesson Links.
Create your graph.

Step 4: Repeat Steps 2 and 3 using Energy from the Sun (with Clouds) that includes cloud effects.

Step 5: To get a better idea of the availability of solar energy from around the world, choose two other locations from around the globe. Make sure to choose one location that is in higher latitudes as well as one in lower latitudes. Make sure to repeat the process as you have in the above steps to collect your data.


1. What is the average solar energy your area receives in a given time (with and without clouds)?
2. Do you think it would be cost efficient to build or buy a solar collector? Why or why not?
3. What is the relationship between the seasons (winter, spring, summer and fall, or wet – dry, depending on location) and the amount of solar energy that a particular place receives?
4. Describe how latitude affects solar energy availability.
5. How would cloud coverage affect the amount of solar energy an area would receive?
6. Explain why knowing the average amount of cloud cover in a given area would be important when deciding whether or not to use solar energy as a power source.
7. How does latitude affect the amount of energy that reaches the Earths surface? (Refer to step 5 from the lesson)


1. How much pollution (emission of greenhouse gasses) does your home or school create? Use the utility bill for your home or school and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission calculator. (See lesson links.)

2. Use your home or school utility bill to investigate the cost differences between natural gas and renewable energy such as wind power. In some locations, the utility bill may contain the natural gas surcharge and the wind power surcharge. Use the Green Power Partnership web site (see lesson links) to estimate the premium for green sources of electricity such as wind power for a location in your state if it does not appear on your bill.
-Is the natural gas surcharge constant or does it fluctuate? (This may require comparing several utility bills for different seasons.)
-What is the surcharge for green power resources such as wind power?
-How does the price of natural gas affect the natural gas surcharge? (See a related discussion on the Oklahoma Gas and Electric Green Pricing Program at the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) web site (see lesson links).
-Find out if purchasing wind power will eliminate the natural gas surcharge on your utility bill.
-Would you save by going green and purchasing wind power over natural gas? If so, estimate how much you would save.

3. Could your school do something to help clean the air and reduce allergies? What steps would you take to decide if it would be environmentally advantageous for your school to convert to a renewable energy source such as a wind turbine specifically for your school?

Lesson plan contributed by Cindy Henry, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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