Solar Today and Tomorrow: Why Our Future will be Solar Powered
Written by Andrew Sendy
Updated March 12, 2020
5 minutes read
Categories: Solar power
While a very small percentage of homeowners actually have solar photovoltaic systems on their roof, chances are they have already been exposed to solar energy. Examples include the simple solar-powered pocket calculator or the solar streetlight on the walk up to our homes or apartment buildings. Indeed, we see solar power on construction sites and other road signs, creating electricity at public parking lots or in electric vehicle charging stations, or helping to compact garbage in municipal waste bins (see the examples here and here).
And, as solar technology and materials increase in efficiency and decrease in cost—driven in part by greater adoption and increased use in centralized electricity generation—the uses are multiplying.
The Solar Power Night Light
Take, for example, the ubiquitous solar power outdoor lighting, whether for safety or decoration. The expense and complexity of running electricity to different areas outside the home can be high. Instead, homeowners use solar lighting to highlight features of the home and property—spotlights on trees, lights under eaves, even a string of lights under patio umbrellas to extend the evening. Search for "solar landscape lighting," and you will find a wide variety of products and uses.
With the help of efficient batteries, light and motion sensors, and low-wattage light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, a small PV panel can produce light that lasts from twilight to morning. This can help with safety by providing lights in otherwise dark areas of the property, like a shed or a walkway.
Charging Your Smart Phone, Your Car, and More
Like a pocket calculator, our everyday tools are now electronic and mobile—but while it's easy to find a plug for your phone, pad, or laptop inside, it's not so easy outside. In today's market, however, you can find portable PV panels and panel packs with which you can charge your mobile device when you're hiking or camping, out on the deck, or at the pool. For watches and exercise trackers, there's even wearable solar.
Currently, solar chargers can go from 4 watts (at prices around $15) to more than 150 watts (around $150), with the range's lower end for phone boosts in several hours and the upper end charging laptops efficiently. As PV and battery technologies become more efficient, charging times are shortening.
As plug-in electric vehicles of all sorts gain in popularity, suppliers are offering residential solar-powered charging stations. For electric cars, which demand large systems, solar can augment charging. But for the electric scooter, bike, or even small motorcycle, solar charging stations, powered by a PV system, can stand alone—and they could serve to build the property's value.
Comfort and Savings for Home and Pool with Solar
Many homeowners are heating pools and augmenting hot water systems with solar thermal technology—pumping water into the coils of a solar collector and recirculating it to the pool or water system. In addition, with the lower costs of solar PV, using PV technology in conjunction with a heat pump is becoming increasingly cost-effective. Some installers offer a combination PV and water heating system.
Of course, solar panel systems that power the home and reduce electric bills are top of mind, particularly in states where homeowners can sell back the electricity they generate. Until 2019, the Federal government provides a 30-percent solar investment tax credit for people who invest in solar. Many utilities and state and local governments offer other rebates and incentives for homeowners to install solar systems. As the cost of manufacturing PV modules drops and PV efficiency increases, and the payback time for installation costs shortens, more homeowners are searching for the right systems and installers—and taking the solar leap.
Further, the advent of energy storage is making the solar decision even more compelling. Technology company Tesla, for instance, has developed roofing tiles that double as a PV system and can be paired with a Tesla battery to manage power in the home.
The Solar Transportation Connection
Solar power for the home is at center stage, but many more uses of solar energy are appearing in the wings.
Solar-powered airplanes and cars get a lot of press, in distance records and annual auto races, but it will probably be a long time before PV technology can power those cars and planes adequately and efficiently. Still, a good deal of transportation relies on solar technologies, in direct and indirect ways. Truckers can use PV to power the AC and refrigeration in their cabs instead of running the diesel engine. A European and Japanese version of the Toyota Prius Prime has a solar panel built into the roof and connected directly to the battery.
Concerned about pollution and noise, cities around the world use solar and storage to charge electric buses. Several subway systems use power agreements with solar electricity providers to run the trains—and we are just beginning to see the direct connection of solar-and-storage systems to the rails.
And what about our roads? Street lighting is a terrific opportunity for solar-and-storage systems. And what if those streets integrated PV? Demonstration projects are proving out the viability of a solar road in places like Missouri and France—but if one considers the possibilities of powering street lights, integrating LEDs in the road, and using other kinds of sensors, the opportunities seem boundless.
A Bright Future for Solar in 2018 and Beyond
It may be, too, that we can overcome the seeming physical limitations of solar power and make it into the world's primary electricity generating source. In China, Russia, and Japan, work is underway to build space-based solar collection stations, where the sunlight is actually eight times stronger than on the earth (because our atmosphere diffuses the sun's rays). The plan is, by 2050 or so, to send the power via microwave to collection batteries on the earth for distribution.
For now, solar continues to be integrated into our everyday lives — the lawn mower, the flashlight, the rechargeable power tool, the commute, our homes. Researchers even are developing clear, photovoltaic windows. When it comes to solar, nothing is surprising—and, in fact, we have integrated it into our lives already.