Fossil fuels are still the dominant energy source in the world, but that may be changing. Advances in renewable tech, especially solar power, have made them more accessible than ever. If you look around, you’ll notice that new solar energy uses are popping up almost every day.

Solar power is now cheaper than many fossil fuels in two-thirds of the world. Since it’s becoming more affordable, solar power is becoming more and more popular in our everyday lives.

Here are some of the most fascinating and exciting uses for solar energy in 2020.

Table of Contents

  1. Watches and other Consumer Electronics
  2. Solar Fabric
  3. Mobile Device Charging
  4. Solar Roof Shingles
  5. Lawn Lighting & Street Lamps
  6. HVAC Systems
  7. Heating or Purifying Water
  8. Floatovoltaics (Floating Solar Farms)
  9. Powering Factories
  10. Highway Noise Barriers
  11. Electric Cars

1. Watches and other Consumer Electronics

Common solar-powered consumer electronics really aren’t that interesting, but I thought I’d include a few here anyway (since they’re so often used in our everyday lives).

For starters, some wristwatches nowadays use solar panels for power instead of relying solely on a battery. The solar panels charge the watch battery when they are exposed to light so the battery never dies, and never needs to be replaced.

Watch brands like Casio, Tissot, Seiko, and more all sell solar-powered watches.

Casio Solar-Powered Wristwatch
Casio “Tough Solar” Wave Ceptor Watch / Photo by Hustvedt / CC BY-SA 3.0

There are also other solar-powered consumer electronics. Here are a few common ones:

  • Emergency Radios
  • Flashlights
  • Calculators
  • Walkie-Talkies

2. Solar Fabric

Another emerging way to generate solar power is with solar fabric. People walk around in the sun all the time, so clothing is the perfect place to gather sunlight for energy. Mounting rigid solar panels on your shirts isn’t ideal, so the solution is in photosensitive fabric.

Solar Fabric
Solar Fabric / Photo by Jeff Miller & UW-Madison / Image Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Researchers can create power-generating fabrics by using light-sensitive dyes like those you’ll find in a solar panel.

What’s more, these materials have uses outside of just clothing. Companies are looking to integrate them into tents, awnings, and curtains too.

3. Mobile Device Charging (Solar-Powered Power Banks)

Think about all the portable electronics you own and consider how much energy that adds up to. Today, people have smartphones, tablets, laptops, and handheld gaming devices, which almost all use rechargeable batteries. While these may not have built-in solar panels, they can still use solar-powered chargers.

You don’t have to look very long to find a portable charger that uses solar power. The best part is that on top of being eco-friendly, these devices are usually cheap. They may account for a relatively small amount of energy, but all that charging adds up over time.

4. Solar Roof Shingles (Building-Integrated Photovoltaics)

You’ve probably seen solar panels on roofs before, but there’s a growing trend toward building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs). BIPV’s are hidden solar panels that blend seamlessly into building designs without ruining their original design aesthetic.

Photovoltaics, or photovoltaic cells, are often used as another name for “solar panels”. 

The most common application of BIPVs is a solar roof, which uses cells built into roofing tiles. That’s far from the only kind of BIPV, though. You can find solar technology hidden in almost everything from walls to windows, and some even offer customizable designs.

Tesla Solar Roof Image
Tesla Solar Roof Tiles: You might not notice it, but each roof tile is a camouflaged solar panel / Image Source: Tesla

What’s more, a lot of these technologies are already offered on the market, albeit they are relatively new (and sometimes expensive). For example, you can order solar shingles from Tesla (USA-only as of now) and other companies like Luma Solar (Canada, USA).

5. Lawn Lighting, Street Lamps, and other Lighting

If you take a walk through a suburban neighborhood, you’ll probably spot small solar-powered lights in front lawns. Outdoor lighting is a popular use of solar energy because there’s plenty of sunlight outside. Using solar power for these lights also means you don’t add to your energy bill when illuminating your lawn.

If you live in a larger city, you know that solar-powered lights don’t just appear in people’s homes, either. More towns are installing solar panels on streetlamps and bus stops. Like with the garden lights, these both save the city money on energy costs and help them be eco-friendly.

6. Heating, Ventilation, and Cooling (HVAC) Systems

Solar Thermal Panels on a Rooftop
Solar Thermal Panels (For Heating)

HVAC (heating, ventilation and air condition) systems are notorious for using substantial amounts of power. They can account for up to 50% of all energy used in your home. When these rely on fossil fuels, they create a lot of emissions, so solar-powered HVAC systems are growing more popular.

There are plenty of solar-powered ventilation fans on the market, which is cheaper than switching your entire house to solar. Apart from fans, you can find a variety of green HVAC systems that use all kinds of techniques. You can even get systems that use pipes running sun-heated water to warm your home.

7. Heating or Purifying Water

Most water heaters use gas or electric power, but solar water heating is becoming more popular. These systems fall into one of two categories: active and passive.

Active water heaters are similar to traditional systems, but use solar panels to generate the electricity they use. On the other hand, passive systems don’t use power at all, as their name implies. These heaters expose water storage tanks directly to the sun, so the radiation naturally warms the water.

Solar energy can also be used to power water desalination systems or purification systems.

8. Floatovoltaics (Floating Solar Farms)

This entry isn’t so much an application of solar energy as much as it is a way of gathering it. Floating solar farms, nicknamed “floatovoltaics,” are precisely what they sound like. They’re massive groupings of solar panels that float on top of bodies of water like lakes or reservoirs.

As solar panels become cheaper, solar farms are becoming a more viable option. The only problem is that clearing enough land to create them isn’t that environmentally friendly. By moving solar farms to the water, companies resolve that issue and benefit from a natural cooling system.

9. Powering Factories

Houses and apartments definitely contribute to energy use, but they’re not the biggest offenders. Factories use far more electricity, and they get all of it from fossil fuels. Thankfully, as climate concerns are becoming more prevalent, that trend is changing. Now, more factories are running off of solar power.

Factories are ideal for solar energy use because of their high needs and massive, often flat roofs. Some facilities have managed to fit more than 4,000 solar panels on top of their buildings. Since renewables are the more affordable choice in some areas, switching to solar makes economic sense for some factories too.

10. Highway Noise Barriers

You can see more solar energy uses these days partly because there are more ways to collect it. If you’ve noticed, concrete sound barriers line a lot of American highways. Recently, some state governments have started converting these barriers into solar farms by fixing panels to them.

By some estimates, 1,000 miles of solar noise barriers could power more than 43,000 homes or all a highway’s streetlights. That amount of electricity could also save a significant amount of money since solar energy is cheaper to collect. More areas might adopt infrastructure like this because it serves a dual purpose: both noise reduction and energy generation. 

11. Electric Cars

Electric cars help decrease emissions on the road, but they require quite a bit of electricity. With traditional energy sources, charging these vehicles wouldn’t be that eco-friendly, since the power would come from fossil fuels. That’s why more electric car companies are turning toward solar power for their vehicles.

Tesla Supercharging Station

Some Tesla Superchargers, for example, use solar for power, and many at-home charging stations also feature solar panels. There are even some vehicles that have built-in panels so they can charge themselves while in the sun!

Solar power is helping these transportation alternatives become more environmentally friendly than they already are.

Renewable Energy Is Growing

Climate threats are increasing and technology is improving, which leads to even more solar energy uses. More people adopting renewable energy leads to additional money for research, which means even more accessibility. It’s a cycle of ever-increasing solar power uses, which is excellent news for the environment and those who care about it.

The world is still a long way off from replacing fossil fuels, but renewables may be more prevalent than you realize. From homes to factories to the roadside, solar applications are everywhere. As time goes on, you’ll only start to see more.

About the Author: Jenna Tsui

Jenna is a tech journalist who co-owns The Byte Beat and frequently writes about the latest news in technology, disruptive tech, and environmental science and more. Check out her work on TBB or follow her on Twitter @jenna_tsui!

Edited and written in part by Hugh.

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