By Mike Elgan, Houzz
When we think about the energy we need to power our homes, we tend to think big. Big hydroelectric dams. Big nuclear power plants. Big wind turbines. Even when we talk about producing solar power, we’re still thinking big, as in big arrays of solar panels on the roof.
But I think the biggest trend in home energy will be small solar. Instead of a single home power plant juicing everything, our devices and appliances will increasingly draw their own power directly from the sun, in tandem with big solar power generation and other alternative energy approaches coming online.
How do I know? Because this is what the Pentagon wants.
Technologies are developed only if someone invests in their development. For little stuff — such as better cell phones and TVs — private companies with an incentive to get rich in the consumer marketplace make those investments.
But big stuff requires big investments. And nobody is a bigger investor in technology than the U.S. military.
For example, the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone and GPS all began as Pentagon research projects. Even Siri, the voice assistant in the Apple iPhone, has its roots in a massive military project.
In the past 10 years, the Pentagon has waged two big wars, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. An enormous amount of time, money and effort has been spent getting gasoline tanker trucks across hundreds of miles of hostile territory to fuel tanks, Humvees and most of all, gas-powered generators that heat water, power computer command centers and more. And they needed to transport millions of batteries for flashlights, portable communications gear and other needs.
All of this expensive and dangerous transport of gasoline and batteries takes place in areas where the sun is beaming down unfathomable quantities of free energy. That fact has not been lost on the Pentagon. So for the last decade, they have been investing in startups developing lower-cost portable solar power technologies. Ultimately, their vision is to develop a low-cost combination of big solar power generators and small solar panels, which will be integrated into the very objects that are using the power.
This investment has accelerated the pace of change. Military investment in U.S. companies has helped those firms compete against Chinese companies in the race to the price bottom for solar technologies.
In a nutshell, it means that small, portable solar power is getting much cheaper and much faster than it otherwise would have, and that solar is “winning” the battle between alternative energies. For small solar devices, prices are dropping so fast that very soon, adding panels to a wide variety of electrically powered household appliances and gadgets will make a lot of sense.
Will Solar Appliances Blend?
Solar research is enabling the development of solar power technologies that blend into their environments, making them easier to incorporate into fine home design. Just last month, UCLA researchers announced the development of transparent solar cells. The technology could be used to develop ordinary home windows that generate electrical power.
What’s interesting about the technology is that it captures energy from the infrared spectrum, not the visible spectrum. The technology would enable solar windows to be manufactured at a low cost, too, according to researchers.
Solar Gadget Chargers
Nearly everybody has a cell phone these days, along with a variety of other consumer electronics devices that have to be charged every night. The consumer electronics industry has produced a universe of solar charging options for phones and other devices. Most are designed for backpackers and travelers. But others, such as this Electree solar bonsai, are designed to become permanent fixtures in your home.
The “tree” is actually made up of individual modules, which you connect together to create the solar charger of your choice — big, small, high-capacity, low-capacity. It’s up to you.
The Electree has a battery in its base, which the solar panels charge. Then, when you plug various devices into the USB port, they’ll be charged just as if they were plugged into the wall outlet.
Solar Lamps Without Electricity
The conventional approach to solar is to convert light into electrical power, which is usually stored in a battery, then used to power items such as lamps. However, a more direct approach is to store the light itself.
Gionata Gatto and Mike Thompson have developed a lamp called the Trace M, which stores light during the day, then “glows” at night to provide ambient outdoor lighting. They use a polyurethane rubber with photoluminescent skins.
The Trace M was developed for exhibition, but many products that use this same concept exist, usually on a much smaller scale such as night lights and ambient outdoor lighting.
Solar Without Sunlight
Some categories of home devices require only a tiny amount of electricity — such a small amount that to power them with solar doesn’t even require direct sunlight, just the ambient light typical inside a home during the day. Solar-powered versions of these devices can eliminate the batteries normally required.
One example is the Muji Aluminum Solar Wave Wall Clock, a standard-looking wall clock with a solar panel about the size of a credit card on the face. Muji products are nice also because they have no visible branding.
Replacing one battery-powered object with a solar-powered one won’t make much of a difference. But as you replace small electrical devices around the home, it’s a great idea to look for solar alternatives. Over time, the savings and environmental benefits add up.
Some categories of solar power use the sun’s energy not only to reduce power consumption, but to increase the amount of time the devices can operate between charges. One great example is the Husqvarna Automower Solar Hybrid. It’s a robot lawn mower that cuts your grass without any nagging.
The entire top of the mower bears solar panels, enabling it to keep on cutting the grass on sunny days without having to go back to its charger (which plugs into a standard outlet).
In other words, the solar panels enable the lawnmower to use a much more energy-efficient motor overall, without sacrificing work time.
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