Solar energy can be converted to electricity in two ways:
Figure out how much energy you need per day and then gauge if the amount of sunlight shining on the panels will supply enough power. Since the amount of sunlight is not constant, you need to determine the availability of sun in your location and how the weather conditions, time of day, and time of year affect the amount of sunlight the panels will receive. If the amount of available sun isn't sufficient, then solar power may not be an option in your area (get a free quote for solar in your area).
Passive solar heating has been used since the beginning of time. Architects have incorporated solar heating and lighting techniques into buildings to make full use of the sunlight. It can be as simple as placing more windows on south-facing walls to collect more direct and radiant solar heat. This is similar to what happens to your car on a hot summer day.
Passive solar heating does not use mechanical equipment to move an air mass, but rather relies on the natural convection movement of air (warm air rises, cool air sinks). As air is warmed by a solar surface (i.e. south-facing wall or roof), it rises and naturally moves throughout the interior of the building. Cool air is pulled into take its place and the heating process continues until the sun stops shining at the end of the day.
Active solar heating, as opposed to passive, uses a machine to distribute the warm air throughout a living space. A ceiling fan is a simple example that moves warm to where it's needed while bringing in cooler air into the solar heating region to take its place. These systems can warm an interior faster than relying on the natural convection movement of air.
Adding solar collectors is very expensive once the building has already been constructed, and therefore should be designed into the building before construction is started. Architects will take into account the orientation of the home with respect to the sun and will include more (or fewer) windows to take advantage of the solar heating. You can affect the amount of solar radiation entering the dwelling by selecting the appropriate window covering (i.e. thick drapes or venetian blinds). Also, the amount of roof overhang will affect the amount of sun that blocked from striking the sunlight-collection wall.
Understanding the basics of solar power can make your home a more comfortable place while saving money and the environment. As the technology progresses, individual homes will be able to generate enough reliable energy to meet most or all of their electrical and solar home heating needs.