The standard solar energy system is relatively common knowledge: a string of panels absorbs sunlight, which then gets converted into electrical energy. But while the number of organizations that are installing solar panels is on the rise lately, not all of them have enough money for large-scale system, so many of them have found unusual and creative ways to harness solar energy.
One of the most impressive solar energy innovations comes from Southern Brazil, where a Brazilian state is building solar water heaters using old bottles and milk cartons. The heaters aren’t photovoltaic like most solar panels, so they don’t convert solar energy directly into electricity; rather, they focus the sunlight to heat water. Not only is it an energy efficient way to acquire hot water, it also uses bottles and cartons that would otherwise go to landfills. In fact, the 3,000 solar heaters made in Brazil have used more than one million bottles and cartons, reducing landfill growth significantly. In China, some people have done the same thing using empty beer bottles.
Another less common use of solar energy is a solar still, which uses solar energy to purify water. Solar stills are structures in which impure or contaminated water is held. The still focuses the heat of the sun, evaporating the water but leaving the pollution behind. The water vapor then condenses and is collected in a separate part of the container, now pure and safe for consumption or domestic use. Solar stills are extremely helpful in any place where the underground water supply is contaminated or inconsistent. In the United States, this means impoverished neighborhoods or some settlements on the US-Mexico border, as well as some areas that are affected by frequent storms such as tornadoes or hurricanes. Abroad, solar stills would be useful in impoverished or war-torn countries to improve the quality of life of everyday citizens.
Corporations are also finding unexpected and often very interesting ways to utilize solar energy. Although automobile manufacturers are still a ways away from creating marketable solar-powered cars, some companies have installed solar panels on the roofs of their manufacturing plants, reducing their carbon footprint in another way. Volkswagen has been the biggest adopter of solar-powered factories, but hopefully other companies will get on board soon.
Many accessory companies are also innovating, creating solar accessories for various technological gadgets.. A recently marketed combination case and backup battery designed for smart phones, called the Enerplex Surfr Series, has a miniature photovoltaic panel on it. When the battery in the case is charged, either via a standard wall outlet or by exposure to direct sunlight, it channels power into the battery in the phone. The Surfr Series is only one in a number of chargers that have come onto the market recently, and although their consistency and efficacy are debated, they represent a strong first step in the shift towards solar.
Many governments are seeking solar alternatives, using solar stills to purify communities’ water and fashioning heaters from recyclables to simultaneously reduce the size of landfills and make budget-friendly water heaters for their citizens. In addition, manufacturing corporations like automobile companies, while unable to market a solar product, have started installing photovoltaic panels on their factories. On the smaller side of solar, many gadget companies are making solar accessories for technology like smart phones. Residential and small business photovoltaic systems are still the largest piece of the industry, but as interest in solar energy continues to grow, more creative methods will surely be developed to harness the sun.