Though solar power may still feel like an esoteric green technology — poised to make its move as oil prices inevitably rise — it is in fact already widely used in homes and businesses around the globe. Read on to find out about the many solar energy applications currently on the market and you’ll be surprised to learn of the prevalence and practicality of this technology. Fossil fuels are no longer the only game in town!
Perhaps the most visible use of solar energy is in solar photovoltaic panels. These flat panels convert sunlight directly to electricity and are found increasingly on residential and commercial rooftops. While initially clunky, expensive, and impractical, newer generations of solar panels with advanced materials and improved engineering pay for themselves more quickly than ever.
When arranged into massive arrays, individual solar panels become vast solar power plants which are now frequently touted as a potential answer to Earth’s energy woes. Consider that the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun in six hours than humankind uses in a year! Or that covering just 4% of the world’s deserts with solar panels would generate enough electricity to power the world.
Another home use of solar energy is in heating swimming pools. Solar pool heaters are simple devices that harness the power of the sun to operate a heat exchanger which warms water as it enters the pool. In many climates, solar pool heating is the most cost-effective use of solar energy and can lead to a significant reduction in costs.
Camping and Off-the-grid Use
There are many regions around the world which lack a wired power grid due to misfortunes of geography or socioeconomic factors. These areas in particular benefit from simple, practical solar solutions. Those of us lucky enough to reside in the first world can take advantage of the same technology to make our backcountry adventures safer and more comfortable.
Solar lanterns are already widely available and inexpensive. Great for outdoor lighting around pools and gardens or keeping the tent bright on a camping trip, these small gadgets typically charge quickly and are more convenient than battery powered alternatives.
In a similar vein, solar chargers for devices like laptops and cell phones and portable solar power stations can lend significant luxury to a wilderness camping trip. At the same time, bringing this technology to the developing world enables communication, employment, comfort and safety like never before at a fraction of the cost of installing a traditional power grid.
Rising oil prices coupled with continued advances in solar technology means big industries and municipalities are also beginning to take notice. Solar trash compactors are ‘smart’ devices with the same footprint of a traditional garbage bin, but much higher capacity. Typically connected to a wireless network, they generate real-time analytics allowing optimization of waste collection routes.
Many believe that access to clean drinking water will be one of the greatest challenges facing our growing population. Here too, solar stands to have a significant impact. Solar desalination plants harness solar energy to evaporate water in order to remove salt from it. Given the ratio of salt to fresh water on our planet, this technology will be of great importance.
Solar power has also been used in water disinfection to remove harmful germs and bacteria. Typically some combination of solar electricity from PV panels, solar heat, and UV rays serves to remove all biological contaminants from a water supply. This mirrors the process of boiling water to render it safe, but is more efficient and incredibly valuable in regions where fuel is not readily available.
Solar-powered steam generation is a fascinating combination of new and old technologies. In fact, the very first installation of solar thermal energy equipment occurred in 1910 when a steam train engine was run on steam produced by sunlight. At the time, the relative abundance of fossil fuels rendered the technology untenable, but researchers are revisiting it in the modern era.
As the price of traditional fuels continues to grow, the efficiency of solar technology continues to improve, and the effects of climate change begin to drive energy policy, the next few decades promise many new applications for solar energy. From solar roadways to solar airplanes to solar windows, the future will be powered by the sun. Learn more about renewable energy projects here.
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