|Artist rending of Solar Impulse's solar plane. Credit: Solarimpulse.com|
On May 24, 2012 the company Solar Impulse launched an entirely solar-powered airplane to complete the world's first solar powered transcontinental flight; a practice run, they say, for an around-the-world flight in 2014. That same month, the boat PlanetSolar completed a solar-powered trip around the world, becoming the first solar-powered vehicle ever to circumnavigate the globe.
We're living in an exciting time when the advent of the practical and economic use of solar power is now at the cusp of going mainstream. As with any beginning, these first steps will be a bit awkward and may seem at times impractical, but already we can see signs of improvement. The cost of building and installing solar panels has dropped dramatically over the past few years and people all over the world are discovering new – and sharing tried and true – ways of harnessing the power of the sun.
The first time I heard about solar ovens, I was watching a YouTube video filmed in Siberia. While standing in a snow bank, a man tacked together five pieces of polished metal so that they turned outward like a satellite dish. In the center of the dish was a piece of cast iron. After the demonstrator had the plates positioned to his satisfaction, he picked up a couple eggs that were resting nearby and cracked them over the cast iron. In almost no time they began to spit and sizzle; five minutes later he had a hot egg sandwich, made with no electricity, in the middle of a frozen landscape.
There are several videos online showing how to make one of these at home with polished pieces of old tin roofing, newspaper plates or even metallic vehicle sun shades (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mg0-ynr6FVk&feature=related). Additionally, there are commercial ovens available on the market that consistently reach the optimum oven temperature of 350 degrees in about the same time it would take to warm up a conventional oven. These are also handy to have in case of natural disasters, such as the massive storms along the east coast this June.
The art of woodburning, or pyrography, has been around since the beginning of recorded time. Different methods have been used, from smoldering sticks to heated needles to Victorian pyrography machines. Using just a magnifying glass, metallic tape and an X-acto knife, you can create your own work of pyrography art. To solar engrave, tape off the area on a piece of wood you will be engraving, making sure the shiny, reflective side of the metallic tape is facing upward. Using the X-acto knife, cut out the areas you wish to burn and remove the tape from those spots. Finally, hold the magnifying glass so that it catches the angle of the sun. The metallic tape reflects the sun while allowing it to burn in the areas you exposed.
When winter arrived too early or showed up without warning in the middle of spring, historically the French would cover their delicate garden seedlings with a cloche, or bell jar. These glass domes are still used today and are a very effective way of keeping young sprouts warm in freezing temperatures and even snow storms, as the bells act like mini greenhouses. Today, small row covers created from arched PVC tubes and clear plastic tarps are also called "cloches" and serve the same purpose.
To make your own glass cloche, simply cut the bottom off of an empty wine bottle and cork the top. To cut the glass, all you need is some yarn, nail polish remover, an ice bath and a lighter. Soak the yarn in the nail polish remover and wrap it several times around the bottle where you would like it to break. Then light the yarn on fire and slowly turn the bottle, following the flame as it burns. Once the flame has made a complete circuit, place the cut area in cold water and wait for a cracking noise. Once you hear that "snap," your glass should be cut right where you want it. For video instructions on how to cut glass, click here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHWYjMlYH50).
Solar Power for Laptops and Smartphones
Most of us have been there, all set up to work from a park or outdoor café only to find that our laptops are almost dead. The same goes with long walks and cell phones. Suddenly we remember that we forgot to charge them and we're stuck incommunicado. While it's not the worst thing in the world to be separated from technology for a bit, most of the time we need our lines of communication open. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of chargers for both laptops and smartphones on the market, and many of them are solar powered. Depending on the quality, you can find a solar charger that will fully load your laptop in as little time as four hours, or provide you with energy while you work. They come in several shapes, from solid rectangles to pliant sheets and even solar paneled messenger bags so you can charge while you walk. Smartphone chargers take about one hour to provide you with two hours talk time, or about four hours to charge fully. Either way, it's a great way to plug in while you're enjoying a plug-free environment.
Sun jars create natural light in your yard after dark and are beautiful additions to any home or garden and are a great conversation starter. To buy them new usually runs around $30 to $40 each, but by making them at home, they can cost as little as $4 a piece. And making a sun jar is a piece of cake. All you need is a Mason jar, some glass frosting paint (or spray paint), and a solar-powered garden light stake. Paint the Mason jar with the glass frosting paint, snap off the stake bit from the solar garden light and glue the light to the bottom of the jar lid. Screw the lid in place and just let the jar sit in the sun. That night you'll have a home or garden full of softly glowing sun jars.
What other ways have you found to use the sun's power in unconventional ways? Have you tried any of these ideas and been successful?
Brent Hardy is Vice President of www.extraspace.com, responsible for all corporate construction & facilities management. He writes about corporate sustainable practices at blog.extraspace.com/category/sustainability.