Imagine a drone navigating to your doorstep, delivering a microwave oven you recently ordered online—simple.
Today’s technology has enabled such a transaction to occur fairly seamlessly, yet innovation hasn’t stopped there. These same drones are now capable of operating via solar power, commanded by a distant satellite in space harnessing solar rays, all the while dropping off a solar-powered kitchen appliance to your home—an end-to-end exchange that’s clean, sustainable and convenient.
It’s no secret that solar energy has made considerable headway in becoming a cost-competitive, cleaner alternative to traditional fossil fuels, powering some of the world’s largest and most vital infrastructure. In fact, a new report from international business consulting firm Lloyd’s Register projects this trend to continue to an ever greater degree, with further adoption of solar cell technology to have an outsized impact on power grids across the globe with each passing year.
Such ubiquity is already evident in the number of workers employed in the solar sector (360,000 by 2021) as well as the declining cost of solar installations (60 percent in the last decade), according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. As more solar systems are brought online, the number of people directly exposed to and impacted by solar on an everyday basis will similarly rise.
But beyond what many people believe to be main offerings of the clean energy revolution—solar-powered homes, cars and storage batteries—there are a host of additional solar applications that have a practical use.
The idea of lining transportation networks with solar panels is not a new one—many nations have already made the foray into large-scale ground-mount solar installations with the goal of generating energy to feed back into the grid. One company, Solar Roadways, has manufactured solar panels that can be driven upon, replacing asphalt or concrete. The panels also contain LED lights for illumination, voiding the need for painted roadways, and they organically melt ice and provide better traction for drivers. A Missouri rest stop is already piloting the panels through the state’s Department of Transportation’s Road To Tomorrow initiative, which will be used on its sidewalks as well.
The idea is that governments and private businesses can put their infrastructure to work for them. Roads can now be monetized while meeting energy demands and slashing traditional maintenance costs. The same rule applies for residential and commercial streets and sidewalks. Installing solar panels in nearby open fields is an option, yes, but designing the ground itself to be a conduit for energy generation is a new frontier altogether—one that is still in its testing phase.
It’s not just the ground we walk and drive upon that scientists and urban planners are revolutionizing. Streetlights connected to solar panels can now be charged during the day when sunlight is harvested by photovoltaic cells, then activated at night once the sun goes down. Even better, many of these lights are outfitted with LED bulbs which project bright, efficient light on roadways.
This same function is present in both indoor and outdoor lamps as well. Many of these products contain microsensors which can detect sunlight and then position themselves to best capture this energy. The power is stored in a battery that is triggered once darkness falls, allowing the lamps to turn on. There’s no need to plug these appliances into walls or worry about higher electricity costs.
Solar panels are commonly viewed as large, unsightly architecture despite their practical use. But the standard look and feel of a solar module is just one variation. mPower Technology, a solar tech startup, recently developed small solar cells made from silicon, rather than crystalline. The cells are revolutionary in their design, and can be folded and transported anywhere. Once you’ve arrived at a new destination, you can simply remove the cells from your pocket and lay them out to harvest the sun wherever you wish.
This breakthrough is similar to the technology now being used to power various portable electronics ranging from cellphones, laptops and wireless keyboards to name a few. A solar-powered charger is a grab-and-go device that can be used anywhere and plugged into virtually any gadget through a USB cord.
For those truly on the move, such as cyclists, solar portability is a must-have. Luckily, bike riders can not just collect solar energy while cycling, but they can also lock up their bikes much more securely when they’re done. Ellipse, made by technology design company, Lattis, is a standard-sized bike lock that contains a small solar panel capable of providing a week’s worth of power after just one hour of charging. The lock can only be accessed through a smartphone, and owners can be alerted if thieves try to hack the lock.
Stuck in the rain at night and wanting to make it home safely? Dining on your back patio when the sun goes down? Enter: solar umbrellas. By fitting small LED bulbs to the interior of an umbrella that also contains small solar cells on the exterior, you can accomplish both of these tasks with ease. While not the most common application of solar power, it can be convenient in certain settings that require additional light.
Outdoorsy types can swap their worn-out gear for backpacks and tents from companies like BirkSun and Kaleidoscope that collect sunlight while either on the go or stationary. This makes camping a breeze, and the energy captured via your gear can even be parlayed into power used to cook meals or heat water for a nice shower—not to mention—you can keep your electronics charged throughout the day. This technology is perfect for outdoor festivals, too.
The opportunities are limitless for solar’s future, and much will hinge upon continued investments and incentives provided by governments around the world. As prices fall further, there’s no reason not to believe that the average consumer will soon be ditching fossil fuels from every facet of their lives.