Solar Power in the Twenty-first Century

What can you do with solar these days? It might be quicker to cover what you can’t do with solar, as the list of solar applications gets longer every year. Solar energy supplies close to 405 gigawatts of power around the world and it’s growing steadily, so it’s no surprise that people keep finding new ways to put it to good use. Here are some stand-out ways solar is being used in our world today, beyond powering our homes and businesses with clean, renewable energy.

Exploring Our Universe Solar panels have been on board spacecrafts since the 1960s and new technologies continue to advance our ability to explore beyond the Earth. In 2017, NASA tested a new Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA) which can be easily packaged into a rocket for transport.1 The solar arrays that currently power the International Space Station cover about 27,000 square meters and can generate enough electricity to power 40 homes!2

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Getting About

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Did you catch the story of the first plane to fly around the world using only solar power? The Solar Impulse 2 used a combination of cutting-edge technologies including ultra-light solar panels and lithium batteries to circumnavigate the globe in 2016 without a single drop of fuel!3 You can watch a short video about the flight here.

Boeing has also developed a solar plane - one that’s remotely piloted from the ground and can fly non-stop, gathering power from the sun as it goes.4 Though you shouldn’t expect to see solar-powered commercial flights coming to an airport near you anytime soon, solar planes are an impressive display of solar potential.

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Circling the globe with solar power isn’t just for the sky - the MS Turanor PlanetSolar is the largest boat to complete the trip. In 2012 it completed a round trip voyage from Monaco at an average of 5 knots. Not only does this solar ship not pollute, it can collect up to 8 tons of ocean pollution as it sails!5 Now that’s green travel.

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A solar-powered train is also an actual thing, thanks to the Byron Bay Railroad Company in New South Wales, Australia. The railroad company converted an old diesel-powered train to run entirely on solar power in 2017.6 The train has solar panels on its roof and can also be re-charged at plug-in solar stations on its route. It holds 100 passengers and though the route is only a couple of miles long, it’s laying tracks (literally) for larger-scale solar transit.

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You may already have a kind of solar vehicle in your garage - Electric Vehicles (EVs) powered by solar charging stations are available in most markets. But even more ways to drive with the sun are being developed for the future. The Dutch company Lightyear One is hoping to have a commercial solar car available by 2019.7 Solar cars, as opposed to EVs, self-charge with integrated solar panels instead of plug-in charging stations, so theoretically you’d never need to stop for re-charging. We agree with Lightyear One that this is the holy grail of vehicles!

Greening Cities


Next time you’re out and about at night, look up. The street lights above you just might be solar powered! It makes sense to use the sun to power things that are outdoors (right under the sun) so it’s easy to see why street lamps with attached solar panels are popping up in parking lots and streets all over the world.

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In some cities, you might also notice what look like space-age trash and recycling bins. These nifty inventions are solar-powered trash compactors that compress the garbage so bins don’t need to be emptied as often. Genius!

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We think the most futuristic solar addition is underfoot. Literally. The Netherlands replaced 70 meters of a tarmac bike path with solar tiles and the power output has exceeded early projections.8 Short sections of road in France, China and the state of Georgia have also been replaced with solar panels built to withstand traffic and weather.9 Although solar sidewalks and solar roads have some hurdles to overcome before it’s practical to deploy them on a larger scale, we love the idea of using existing paths and roadways to power our cities!

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A sports stadium in Taiwan is equipped with a solar roof that provides 100 percent of the stadium’s electricity. It takes just six minutes to power up the stadium’s 3,300 lights and two jumbotrons. As an added bonus, power generated when the stadium is empty can be sent to the grid and re-sold.10

Powering Remote Places

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The ability to go anywhere makes solar an excellent resource for medical professionals. Solar refrigerators allow vaccines to be stored safely in remote areas11 and one organization deploys Solar Suitcases to get reliable lighting, battery charging and even fetal dopplers to medical providers in the most off-grid areas.12

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Solar portability is also bringing technology opportunities to remote, underserved populations - including refugee camps. Zubabox delivers internet cafes in shipping containers. Solar panels in the container’s roof power refurbished PCs inside.13 What a great way to use power for good - solar power that is!

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Solar microgrids are bringing power to remote areas more quickly and efficiently than waiting for grid connection. The village of Dharnai in Bihar, India had waited 30 years for electricity with no success until they went solar. A microgrid installed in Dharnai now powers 400 households and 50 commercial establishments, including two schools and one health center.14 This solution is popping up all over the world in areas without access to electricity.

Never a Dull Moment

Thanks to innovative minds, we expect to see the list of solar applications continue to grow in new, inventive ways. The adaptability of solar power is making the impossible possible all around us and we’re thrilled to play a role in this fast-paced industry. To learn more about how your home can join the solar revolution, visit us at



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