Solar Tribune

Investing in Solar: Beyond Rooftop PV


Integrating solar power into your life to enhance your renewable energy credentials and decrease your carbon footprint isn’t restricted to rooftop installations. Rather, many personal products exist to let you hop aboard the solar train!

Solar power has rapidly transitioned from a niche technology into one which only businesses or households with lots of disposable income could buy to a truly democratic energy source available to all. And it’s not hard to understand why, since the ‘fuel’ behind solar power is literally all around us every day via the sun’s rays. But beyond the ubiquity of solar generation capability, as well as the increasing efficiency and decreasing capital costs that are making solar power more accessible, innovative companies and creators are finding new ways to allow solar panels to become a part of the daily lives of consumers, even when solar photovoltaic (PV) panels are not an option.

Going from the largest to the smallest personal solar energy technologies someone can embrace, here are some examples (and if you happen to know a clean tech enthusiast with a birthday coming up, consider the following a great gift list ranging from high-ticket items to budget buys):

Solar panels

When you think of taking advantage of solar power as a consumer, the first and most obvious way that comes to mind is in installing solar panels on the rooftop of a home. The ability of a home to be well-suited to solar installations varies based on a variety of factors: layout of the roof, pattern of the sun hitting the rooftop during an average day, region of the country, and more. Even when a home is well-suited to physical installation of solar, issues like cost and regional policies come into play.

In an ideal world for a solar fanatic, he or she will be able to navigate the upfront costs and the red tape in order to install rooftop solar. For homes where that’s not an option, perhaps because the costs are too great (even after subsidies) or they rent rather than own the home, community solar is an emerging trend. Community solar programs allow people to ‘subscribe’ to a local solar facility (unattached to their actual homes) and receive a share of the economic benefits of renewable energy, while also doing their part to promote a clean energy transition.

Photo Source: NYSERDA

All told, only nine states across the country have exceeded 10,000 homes with solar panel installations, demonstrating just how few people are actually in a position to embrace rooftop solar. If going all-in with a rooftop installation to power a home is a leap too far, though, homeowners can still embrace solar to replace part of their home energy use…

Solar water heater

While the average residential solar rooftop installation costs nearly $16,000 according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, homes can invest in solar water heaters for as little as $2,000 to $6,000, on average. Solar water heaters are still a hefty investment, even after the 30% tax credit for which they qualify, and they also still require the commitment of the homeowner. However, the threshold is lower than it is for solar panels and the benefits are just as tangible.

Water heating accounts for 14% of energy use in an average U.S. household, equal to over 1,450 kilowatthours per year and nearly $200 in power bills. As a strategy to minimize those costs, solar water heaters can reduce the need for electric or gas heating for water heating needs. Direct solar water heaters circulate water through pipes on the roof to get heated up by the solar concentrating equipment, while indirect solar water heaters use non-freezing heat transfer liquid to transfer the heat from a rooftop solar collector to the water.

Photo Source: Air Conditioning Oklahoma

While solar water heaters won’t replace the need for a regular water heater, they can typically replace 50% of a home’s water heating needs and can pay for themselves in just 3 to 6 years (well under the 15 to 30 year lifespan of a solar water heating system). For consumers in warm locations, solar water heating systems can also be installed for pool heating needs with a payback period of 1.5 to 7 years on the initial investment of $3,000 to $4,000.

Again, though, these upfront costs and home-ownership requirements mean large portions of the U.S. population won’t be able to take advantage of these solar products. However, those people still may desire to get involved with solar power. Luckily, the tools available to solar power enthusiasts come in smaller packages still…

Solar generator

Solar panels and solar water heaters are built into home systems to offset direct energy demand that would otherwise be experienced, but another option for utilizing the power of the sun is to purchase a solar generator. A solar generator refers to an all-in-one solution to generate and store energy in a single device, typically coming with storage capacities between 0.1 and 2 kilowatthours. That amount of power is not sufficient to run a house or even most large appliances for more than a few hours, and they can cost from a few hundred dollars up to $2,000 while weighing over 100 pounds, meaning these aren’t solutions for running a home off the grid.

Photo Source: Climate Counts

So, who actually can use a solar generator and for what purpose? Having a solar generator on-hand can make for good backup power for critical devices in the event of a power outage (and a carbon-neutral alternative to the more typical gasoline generators), on boats, or to charge devices needed on a camp site. In each of these use cases, personal solar generation demonstrates the clean energy resource’s immense flexibility to generate and store power for use with regular devices. However, we can get even smaller and more affordable by moving from solar generation to devices powered directly by the sun’s rays…

Solar-charged camping devices

As mentioned, a solar generator can be a great option for powering the off-grid campsite, but outdoor enthusiasts can also embrace the sun by finding devices that are designed to be powered by the sun on their own. This solar-powered camping equipment is a rapidly growing sector with a wide variety of products available:

  • A solar water purifier that’s verified by the Environmental Protection Agency
  • A plethora of solar ovens to cook food in the sun without the need to build a fire or use gas or charcoal

Photo Source: GoSun

A new solar-powered camping product seems to get released every day and there’s no shortage of new ideas on crowdfunding websites either. But campers aren’t the only off-grid customers for solar innovation…

Solar satellite television

Studies found that while Kenya has 10 million homes across the country, only 3.9 million of those have television due to lack of power, difficulty in getting service coverage, and unaffordable upfront costs. As a result, many Kenyans don’t receive the benefit of information and news that affects their daily lives, a detriment to these households. To solve that problem, Azuri Technologies announced a pay-as-you-go solar satellite television system that would allow off-grid households in Africa to have access to television.

Photo Source: Azuri Technologies

The benefits of this television access for rural areas go beyond just entertainment. According to Azuri, a survey of customers found that 98% were more aware of important local and international news because of the solar television, 92% reported improvement in their communication skills, and 60% said their children were able to read, write, and speak better thanks to the engagement from the TV. These figures show that solar technology goes beyond just cool technologies, but can actually affect positive change.

While such transformative technology shows how great the effect of solar power can be, even smaller products can bring users important benefits…

Solar charger for phones

As smartphones become more and more necessary for daily life– for entertainment, work, and security– the dread of a phone running out of battery has become more prevalent than ever. Many portable chargers exist that allow boosting of a phone’s battery on the go, but those chargers must also be kept at full charge themselves in order to be useful, and thus they aren’t particularly useful when the user hasn’t planned for them.

To solve that problem, countless solar-powered phone chargers have hit the market, each with their own niche use case. For extended expected use, such as during camping or tailgating, some solar power banks come with multiple PV panels. When you want to save the energy from the sun to power your phone at a later time, invest in a solar-powered battery bank. To prevent the need to carry an additional device, some solar phone chargers even double as a protective cased for your phone.

Photo Source: The Outdoor Spirit

Whichever you use for your needs, solar chargers are critical because of the prevalent uses for phones that now include GPS, emergency calls, flashlight, and more. Though, to be sure, these solar chargers can also extend the use of your phone for games and other fun. But that’s not the only entertainment you can get solar-powered…

Solar toys

Getting to the smallest and least costly abilities of solar power, they’ve become useful even for children’s toys. Whether a solar-powered remote control car or educational knickknacks to be fueled by the sun, solar energy can let parents entertain their children without constantly needing to swap out AA batteries. On top of that, providing kids with solar toys is a proven way to inspire and educate the clean energy enthusiasts of tomorrow.

Photo Source: Amazon

The sun is the source of all energy used on Earth, whether directly or indirectly, so it should come as no surprise that any application you may think of has either a commercially-ready solar product or such technology is already in development. Harnessing the power of the sun is useful, economical, and can even be fun, so find the application and budget that fits your desired use case and go to town!

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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