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How is solar energy used?

With so many different gadgets and technologies that could leverage solar power in the modern era, many are wondering “how is solar energy used?” Whether it’s powering renewable transportation or charging a wireless speaker, the list of examples of solar energy is endless, leaving many homeowners wondering how far they can really go when they decide to “go solar.”

What is solar energy used for?

Solar energy uses captured sunlight to create photovoltaic power (PV) or concentrated solar power (CSP) for solar heating. This energy conversion allows solar to be used to power auto motives, lights, pools, heaters and gadgets.

There’s no doubt that the solar-powered products available on the market are increasingly complex. Here’s EnergySage’s top five list for examples of solar energy:

1. Solar-powered transportation: a new use of photovoltaic energy

An innovative practice to effectively make use of the sunshine is with transportation powered by photovoltaic (PV) energy. Railroads, subways, buses, planes, cars and even roads can all be powered by solar, and solar transit is becoming a popular offering in the renewable energy sector. Recently, the solar powered-aircraft Solar Impulse 2 made its way around the world, soaring across the Pacific and making big splashes in iconic photographs. Meanwhile, solar buses are helping China reduce its carbon footprint while simultaneously maintaining efficient mass transit in densely populated cities like Beijing. Finally, solar cars are starting to play a role in racing competitions around the world, especially in Australia where the SolarSpirit model has gained major recognition. With these advances and more, there’s no question that solar power is the transforming transportation sector around the world.

2. Wearable solar tech: a personal way to use solar power

Powering consumer electronics has become a common solar power use in today’s world – solar-powered chargers like Anker’s Powerport can charge anything from a cell phone to a tablet or e-reader. There are even solar-powered flashlights that can be charged by being exposed to sunlight. For those curious about the top products in solar tech, check out this top 10 list of uses for solar devices:

  1. Cell phones

  2. Wearables

  3. Music speakers

  4. Solar air conditioning

  5. Tablets

  6. Thermostats

  7. Solar dryers

  8. Solar visor radios

  9. Freezers/mini-fridges

  10. Rechargeable flashlights

As the world moves away from fossil fuels and seeks renewable sources for everyday electronics, there’s no doubt that solar will continue to be adopted by the masses for any product that can be exposed to sunlight. The ultimate goal: use solar products to reinvent the way we think about power usage, and reverse the expectation for how devices should be charged. And as the conversion efficiency of solar continues to improve, this trend will expand into new markets and new products.

For example, wearable solar could soon make Apple Watches and Fitbits much more appealing to consumers – unlike their standard counterparts, solar-powered smartwatches don’t need to be plugged in to recharge every night. The real question is, will these large technology companies be able to integrate wearable solar technology into their products before an emerging brand beats them to it?

3. Solar lighting: a popular example of solar energy

One of the easiest ways to improve home efficiency is to add outdoor solar lighting to your property. Unlike traditional exterior lights, solar lighting requires no complicated setup as the lights are wireless and harness sunlight during the day to circumvent the need for grid-supplied electricity at night. Though solar lights are not yet as common as solar panels, they are quickly joining the likes of LED lightbulbs and smart home thermostats as a cheap product that can reduce electric bills and improve the efficiency of your home.

Additionally, the aesthetic of modern solar lighting can significantly improve the outdoor decor of a property. Elaborate lighting arrays can improve the exterior design of a property, are often as cheap as $20 per light, and are available at major home retailers such as Home Depot. The availability and low cost of these lighting products are one reason why it’s so common to see solar-powered street lights – keep your eye out for those like the one pictured above.

4. Portable solar: using solar on the go

You are probably familiar with the idea of using solar to power your home and other large equipment like lighting. Solar is also an extremely useful way to power the smaller devices you use in your home including your phone or watch. There are smaller solar cells that can be used to power these devices.

5. Solar ventilation: cooling your home with solar

In addition to solar heating, there are also options to use solar to cool your home. Solar ventilation tools such as solar fans are a great option to help offset your energy use even if you aren’t able to install an entire PV system.

6. Solar heating: using PV for thermal energy

Many homeowners are unaware that solar water heaters and solar space heaters are an effective way to heat one’s home without making the larger investment of installing solar panels. Solar space heaters harness sunlight and convert it into thermal energy with the use of liquid or air as a medium, while solar water heaters use water as a method for thermal transfer. These solar heating systems can either be passive or active – while passive systems utilize natural circulation, active systems use pumps to circulate water and generate heat. Homeowners who install a thermal solar array on their roof can expect 5 to 10 percent returns with a system that costs a fraction of a full solar panel installation.

A major benefit of solar thermal technology is the ability to heat your pool at a more cost-effective rate than conventional alternatives such as oil and gas pumps. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “solar pool heating is the most cost-effective use of solar energy in many climates.” Wondering how solar heated pools work? At its simplest, the technology uses a solar collector that harnesses sunlight and converts it into heat. Water is then drawn through the collector as a means of heating the pool. This technology can also be used to cool the water at night (typically necessary only in hotter climates). Solar heating systems range between $3,000 and $4,000 and can provide a payback period as short as one and a half years.

7. Rooftop solar: a homeowner’s best friend

With so many amazing gadgets and devices available under the sun in 2018, it’s easy to overlook the most important use of solar energy: rooftop solar. While solar energy can be used to fly an aircraft and charge a battery, it can also be used to save homeowners thousands of dollars every year by cutting their energy use, carbon footprint and utility bills.

As you consider the various ways to go solar, make sure to first estimate your potential solar savings and see what a solar investment could do for your household finances. Utilizing smaller products and home improvements to improve the efficiency of one’s home is a great practice, but at the end of the day, the ultimate opportunity to improve one’s carbon footprint and electric bill is with a home solar panel installation. If you’re starting to think about going solar, join the EnergySage Solar Marketplace for free in order to start comparing multiple installation offers from the top pre-screened solar companies in your area.

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