Six solar power solutions that are taking sunlight to a whole new level
Photo credit: Grafixar from morguefile.com
Photosynthesis is a perfectly sustainable energy system and scientists
hope to develop an economically efficient way to imitate it.
Sunlight is an incredible part of our daily lives. From infusing us with loads of healthy Vitamin D to keeping us warm and waking us up bright and early every morning, sunlight is a necessary part of our existence. It’s also one of the main sources of natural, sustainable energy on the planet. Although simple methods for focusing the rays of the sun and creating heat have been around for hundreds of years, the technology behind solar power plants wasn’t fully developed until the 1980s. Since then, solar technology has had its fits and starts, but it’s constantly being improved upon and refined. In fact, there have been several very recent improvements that are changing the way researchers and scientists look into collecting energy from the sun.
Learning from the leaves
Photosynthesis is probably one of the most efficient, sustainable energy systems in the world. Leaves take up water and split the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules, releasing the oxygen and using the hydrogen to create food and new growth. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), researchers have developed a way to mimic this process and recently created a metallic combination that allows them to do it on a much more economic level. If they are able to implement these new artificial leaves on a larger scale, they could potentially have a way to support the power demands of the world while only covering about .16 percent of the earth’s surface area. And that’s if those little leaves only use about 10 percent of the light that falls on them.
Salt of the earth
Still another improvement in solar technology is in our ability to store it. For more than 30 years, researchers have been looking into ways to utilize salt, particularly molten salt, for the purpose of storing and generating electricity. Commonly called “power towers,” molten salt technology is currently being used in California’s Mojave Desert to generate electricity from the abundant sunlight. Collectively called the Solar Energy Generating Systems SEGS), the plant reportedly generates enough power for 232,500 homes, displacing almost 4,000 tons of pollutants each year.
The system works by heating molten salt in a tower with solar energy, and then moving the heated salt to a container. The molten salt is either stored there or used to create superheated steam that powers a turbine, that in turn generates power to be stored in a generator. The most recent improvements on the system show so much promise that Google is reportedly in the process of creating a power tower that could generate up to 382 MW of electricity.
Power when you need it most
Outside of the improvements in how we look at collecting solar power, current solar technologies are stepping it up on the home front, as well. When was the last time you were waiting for a late flight or sitting in the car on a long trip and grabbed your laptop, only to find it was out of power and there were no available plugs in sight? Several companies have tackled this all-too-common problem and are developing a wide range of solutions, most of them based on solar technology. Today you can find solar chargers that work for your laptop and/or smartphone that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and price ranges. Depending on what you get, some chargers can completely recharge your laptop in as little as four hours and others can be plugged in to provide consistent power while you work outside on a sunny day. These chargers can be as simple as a flexible sheet of solar cells or as complex as a solar messenger bag that can charge your laptop as you travel.
Bottling the sun
Even though it might be nice to have a perfectly light-scaped yard, it’s not always an economic option and it can definitely be a drain on electricity. With improvements in standard solar power technology, the cost for simple solar collectors such as solar-powered lights is dropping dramatically. And while there are options for powering your outdoor lighting with cost-efficient solar panels, those with a creative inclination and a tighter budget can create their own solar lighting for as little as $4 a piece. Using solar powered garden stakes from your local home improvement store, snap the stake end off of the solar lights and glue the lights to the insides of Mason jar lids. Paint the insides of the mason jars with glass frosting paint and simply screw the lids back on with the lights inside the jars. Leave the jars outside during the day and at night you’ll have a garden full of freshly bottled sunshine.
It seems like there is a bright future for solar and new applications are constantly being developed, both for current technology and the hopeful technology of the future. What applications have you found for our current solar technology? Are there any improvements in utilizing solar power that you think should be explored even more?
Brent Hardy is the driving force for Extra Space Storage corporate responsibility through energy management and sustainability programs at www.extraspace.com. Brent leads a conversation about sustainability at blog.extraspace.com/category/sustainability.