As fuel prices and environmental concerns grow, many of us are curious about the possibilities of solar power. The possibility of a limitless supply of energy provided by the sun stirs hopes and optimism. The idea of attaching a glass panel to the roof to heat water or power a home is undeniably appealing.
Could a simple device with no moving parts eliminate — or put a healthy dent in — your monthly electric bill? Why, just thinking about this makes me want to climb the ladder and get to work on a solar panel array on my south-facing rooftop. But then a few simple financial facts bring me back down to earth.
A large-scale home solar power system can cost thousands of dollars, and, depending on the predicted payback, you might have to live in your present home for 15 or 20 years to save enough in energy costs to pay for the infrastructure. In our mobile society, how many of us will stay in the same house long enough to reach the payoff?
For some, it might make sense to follow your green instincts and install a full-fledged solar power system. For the rest of us, maybe not; at least until the cost of the materials falls and the payoff period becomes more realistic. But there are ways to use solar power without taking out a home equity loan; through products I’ll call solar gadgets. For as little as a couple dollars to a couple hundred dollars, you can make your own solar statement.
Here are a few ideas to take advantage of the sun’s power in affordable and convenient ways:
Small-scale solar array: Hardware stores and home centers sell small solar panel arrays that can be used to power lights, tools and appliances. They come in handy for off-the-grid cabins and storage sheds, or for powering electric fences and gates that can’t be reached by the electrical grid. A popular system is a 45-watt array connected to a deep cycle 12-volt battery and a DC/AC inverter that will power several devices. The panels are weatherproof and come with all the necessary mounting brackets for a typical installation.
Solar light bulb: One of a number of portable solar light sources in the $15 to $20 range, the Nokero N200 LED Solar Light Bulb has an ingenious design that takes the shape of a light bulb which can be hung just about anywhere–from your tent to a backyard deck–to light up the night. A compact solar panel swivels for optimal sun exposure, connects to a NiMH battery and gives 6 hours of light on one day’s charge. The light has low-light and “turbo-task” mode settings.
Solar emergency kit: In the event of a power outage due to a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster, you want to have a working radio and flashlight. Solar powered devices really aren’t much more expensive than traditional battery-operated units, yet may be more reliable when you need them most. Battery-powered radios and flashlights may fail if batteries are drained or corroded. Radios that have a built-in solar panel will recharge in the sun, and usually have a hand-crank power generator as well. Multifunction solar radios with AM-FM and weather bands, as well as a connection for charging cell phones, cost about $40. Solar-powered flashlights use durable LEDs that require a fraction of the power of old-technology bulbs. There are many varieties available, from key lights to strong torches.