Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why Are You Not Using Only Solar Power?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

solar panel Happy Earth Day, everyone! Why aren’t you out planting a tree instead of burning energy looking at the internet? For shame!

I’m just kidding, of course. But to help make up for your lack of Earth Day spirit, you can ask yourself a simple question: Why am I not sucking all the energy I can out of that big yellow ball in the sky we call the Sun?

That’s a very good question, informed reader; I’m glad you asked it. Just why is there not a solar panel on top of every home in America providing all the power we need to run our TVs, dishwashers, and pinball machines? The answer is simple but threefold:

  1. Solar energy is least available where it is most needed. This is the big reason why New York City isn’t getting its billions of annual kilowatts from solar power–the Sun is just not in the right place. Most of the biggest cities in North America, Europe, and Asia are in the same gas-powered boat: even if solar power setups were dirt cheap, most of the Sun’s energy is aimed toward the tropics and not toward the developed countries of the world. Take a look at this map and see for yourself:

    solar map of the world

  2. Solar power’s two biggest foes: clouds and nighttime. Things still need to run when the Sun isn’t shining brightly down on creation. We need power for lights even more so when it’s dark outside. Solar mechanisms need the light of the Sun to keep on generating their power, but every night and the occasional bad weather day can put a complete stop to this process. Fortunately this disadvantage is not as critical since solar power can be collected and stored for later use (though such storing adds to the cost).
  3. Solar is inconvenient. Just like making the switch from gas to hydrogen-powered automobiles would be extremely difficult, changing over from conventional means of generating electricity to solar power would require a lot of effort. While the world’s entire energy needs can be fulfilled by solar power generators occupying only a tiny fraction of its land surface, such a fundamental shift is not something people will be gung-ho about until it is the only option remaining. So until every last chunk of coal and drop of oil is used, solar power may just remain a back-up plan.

Solar power does have one big advantage over coal, natural gas, fossil fuels, or even nuclear power: you can harness and convert all the solar energy your entire home needs without building a power plant next door to it. Consider the story of Alden Hathaway, a homeowner in rural Virginia whose solar-powered home now produces the 24 kilowatts per day it also consumes. While the initial installation of the solar generators added to the cost of the home, the Hathaway family will never need to pay a power bill ever again. In fact, they even hooked up their solar generators to the local utility grid and sell their excess solar power back to the utility companies.

So just how much would it set you back to convert your house to run solely on solar power? The amount could vary depending on your location, available space, and cost of materials and installation, but one man whose weekend vacation home is entirely solar-powered determined that his solar setup would pay for itself in just six years.

Still, we all know that neither you nor I is going to start working on a total conversion to solar power anytime soon. But you can start weaning yourself off of conventional energy by adding smaller solar power components to your life. While you’re sitting at your computer, you can order a few ready-to-use solar generators right now and have them powering some of your household items by next week. Here are a few of my favorite ideas for replacing batteries and plugs with shiny solar panels:

  • Coleman 50015 15-Watt Solar Powered Battery Charger. Generators like these start from around $150 and can provide enough power to run small devices like radios, battery chargers, and fans. They’re also great as portable energy sources for camping trips and other excursions into places where you can’t just “plug it in.”
  • Brunton Solarport 4.4 Watt Foldable USB Solar Charger. Charge batteries or run USB-powered devices directly from this gadget that you can pick up for only $110.
  • Better Energy Systems Solio Solar-Powered Charger & Battery for iPod. Yes, the charger is far bigger than the object it’s meant to power, but this item would be perfect for supplying hours of music to a beach party. It also folds up small for easy portability.
  • Gaming Device Solar Charger. Run your Nintendo DS, Gameboy Advance, or Sony PSP from this device and never have to worry about finding a place to charge again (assuming the Sun decides to hang around and not go all supernova on us, but then beating your friends in Mario Kart would be the least of your concerns).
  • Solar Spot Light. This one’s a no-brainer for outdoor lighting solutions. No need to run cords across your yard, and it can store power during the day for use at night. An inexpensive item you should pick up for your home right now.

So start putting a little bit of sunlight in your life. The environment–not to mention your utility bills–will thank you. Now let’s just hope they come up with some better designs for solar-powered cars before we run out of oil…

solar car

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