Sustainable Living | 14 January 2016Solar Power at Work in the World Share article facebook twitter google pinterest From petite home solar cookers to towering power plants capable of generating 5000° F heat, solar power is at work all around us. Solar panels are combined with solar hot water collectors (the panels along the ridge) to provide electricity, hot water and heat for this home. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects When you hear the term “solar power,” do you immediately think of large, flat panels? Solar power is not just big arrays of solar panels. There are two essential strategies for harnessing solar power. The first uses photovoltaic cells to convert light to electricity; depending on the size and number of panels, cells can power anything from a pocket calculator to an entire city. However, the basic building block–the cells–have to be manufactured. The second type of solar power involves concentrating and converting sunlight to heat; the technology to do that is simple enough to be understood by children, relatively inexpensive, and very DIY friendly. If you can glue aluminum foil to cardboard or cover a wooden box with a piece of glass you can make a working solar collector and start saving real money immediately. In DIY Solar Projects: How to Put the Sun to Work in Your Home, author Eric Smith explores both types of solar power, explaining how-to projects that you can build with basic tools and skills such as how to heat your own water, warm up your house, dry your own lumber, make your own distilled water, and do other projects that turn solar heat into reduced utility bills. He also explains the basics of solar electricity, from battery charging and simple lights and pumps to sophisticated whole-house systems, and he shows you simple ways you can make use of solar electric technology right now. Before diving into the how-tos, though, we thought you might enjoy a little dip into a big pool of inspiration: take a look at the ways solar power is making great strides all around the world! With a few photovoltaic panels and storage batteries, isolated areas miles off the electric grid, like this village on Surin Island in Thailand, can have reliable power for modern convenience. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects Solar technology is advancing rapidly, but the basic ideas behind it have been around for a very long time. More than two thousand years ago, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and others were starting fires by concentrating and focusing the rays of the sun, and structures have been built and oriented to collect—or block—solar heat for at least that long. Solar power plants are most cost-effective in parched desert areas where the sky is usually clear. This array provides power for an air force base in Nevada. Photo credit: US Air Force/Nadine Y. Barclay / DIY Solar Projects The first known solar cooker was used in the 1830s, and the first solar cell was developed in 1876. The photoelectric effect—the process whereby light creates electricity—was explained by Albert Einstein in 1905. Turning the abundant sunlight that falls on the earth every day into useful energy is a dream that has been pursued for centuries, but only recently has manufacturing technology advanced to the point where these dreams can begin to be realized by almost anyone. Solar-powered cars get faster and more efficient every year Races give competitors from around the world a chance to try out new ideas and show off their work They also make the point that solar power is still very much an evolving, DIY-friendly field–most of the cars are put together with off-the-shelf parts by enthusiastic amateurs. Photo credit: Hideki Kimura, Kohei Sagawa / DIY Solar Projects Fossil fuels are slowly but very definitely running out, even as the world’s energy needs increase. All the fossil fuel that will ever be available on earth, including uranium for nuclear power, is less than half of the amount of solar energy received on earth every year. And solar energy will never run out. All over the world scientists are experimenting with new materials and techniques to harvest this energy, and new ways to improve the efficiency of materials being used now, such as silicon. This elegant catamaran is powered by the solar panels forming its roof. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects Photosynthesis in plants is being studied for clues about how to make better solar cells, since plants make much more efficient use of the sun’s energy than silicon cells currently do. Fuel cells, which can use solar power to convert water into hydrogen fuel using solar or other renewable power, are being researched as an alternative to batteries. Even impossible-sounding ideas like placing giant solar panel arrays in orbit, where they can harvest ten times as much power as they do on earth, are being seriously considered. Even though we don’t yet know what it will look like or what the infrastructure that makes it work on a large scale will look like, solar technology is our future. Using a solar panel to provide power for a stoplight at an intersection that’s not on the electric grid saves many thousands of dollars. Using them to replace worn-out hard-wired stoplights in the future will save even more. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects The light from hundreds of solar reflector panels is focused at the top of the tower, creating steam to power turbines that generate electricity for thousands of homes. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects This massive power plant (above) and this small solar cooker (below) work on the same basic principle: Gather a large amount of light and focus it on a small area to make liquid boil The power plant concentrates light from smaller mirrors on the hillside facing it, then focuses the light into a tight beam that can reach over 5000° F. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects This lightweight “tuk-tuk”–a motorized rickshaw popular throughout Asia–uses solar panels and a bank of batteries for power. Extremely maneuverable and capable of speeds up to 30 mph, this nonpolluting vehicle is perfect for crowded city streets. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects Large, flat-roofed warehouses and factories have acres of unused, sun-drenched space perfect for solar panels. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects PV panels are used as an architectural element in this office building, along with the louvered glass and metal panels that shade the south-facing offices from the midday heat. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects An array of solar panels and a bank of batteries replaced the noisy, smelly generator that formerly powered this remote lighthouse. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects Instead of letting employees’ cars just sizzle in the hot parking lot all day, this large company shaded them with solar panels. Now the cars stay cool and the business that employs their owners gets free energy. Photo credit: DIY Solar Projects Remotely piloted, solar-powered aircraft are being developed by NASA as part of research into airplanes of the future Here a prototype is being put to use photographing coastal ecosystems in Hawaii. Photo credit: NASA/Nick Galante / DIY Solar Projects DIY Solar Projects: How to Put the Sun to Work in Your Home About DIY Solar Projects: Advances in solar technology have made many DIY-friendly products available to consumers, several of which will be hitting the market for the first time in 2011. These include solar water heaters, solar battery charging stations, solar powered lights, photovoltaic shingles that provide supplementary electricity, solar heat pumps, and solar panel kits that generate primary home electrical service. Among the step-by-step projects is a solar water heating system you can build and install yourself for under $1000; simple thermosyphon solar heat collectors for barns and outbuildings; or “heat grabbers” that you can fabricate for $50 in materials and position below a south-facing window to provide auxiliary winter heat. About the Author: Eric Smith has worked for many years as a Home Improvement editor. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. 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