Oh, the places solar cells will go

While solar cells are typically arranged in large glass-covered panels and end up on rooftops, they also are cropping up in some public – and sometimes unlikely – places as a way to generate power and publicity. A recent decision by Portland’s city council to start marketing its solar-powered portable restrooms, made us wonder where else can solar cells go to proselytize the merit of clean energy?
Speaking of solar marketing, whatever happened to the federal government’s plan to put solar panels on the White House?
So here’s our list of some of the most bizarre places where we’ve found solar cells, and let us know if you find any interesting ones to add!
1). Portland Loos: Yes, that’s what Portland city officials call the solar-powered portable toilets, and the city even holds a patent for this “technology”. The city council voted last week to market the loos to public agencies and private businesses. A big motivation behind the sunny toilet design was to create a structure that can resist graffiti and vandalism and make it easier for police to spot illegal activities (you can see the user’s feet).
The five that have been installed in Portland feature three Sanyo solar panels on the roof of each unit and batteries for storing the solar power, said Greg Madden at Madden Fabrication, which makes the potties. The power runs LED lighting inside and out, as well as the toilet flusher and a heater to insulate water lines.
2). Food trucks: Some of the more yuppie versions of the mobile food stands that are becoming common on urban streets also sport solar panels. Where can you find a whole bunch of them? Why here in the San Francisco Bay Area of course. Now you can wolf down upmarket street food knowing that the carbon footprint of that taco is may be smaller than usual.
3). Trash cans: BigBelly Solar sells solar-powered trash compactors that compress trash to minimize the frequency of trash collection (and save money) and also wirelessly notifies haulers when the bins are full. A battery stores power for use at night. I first wrote about it back in 2009. Its customers include Waste Management.
4). Sports stadiums: Sports arenas use a lot of power and are great advertising spaces. Some solar companies sponsor sports teams while others manage to get their solar panels on stadium buildings. Quite a number of stadiums around the world now run partly on solar energy, including in the U.S., Australia, China, Switzerland, Germany and Taiwan.
5). Fashion: The idea here is to use solar cells as practical accessories by embedding them in clothes, purses or even necklaces, which then become walking chargers for gadgets such as music players and cell phones. Silvr Lining in Los Angeles and Noon in Chicago have been doing just that. Swimwear also inspires the merger of fashion and renewable energy – since you’re going to be under the sun anyway, why not make use of it.
6). Cars: There is a long-distance race for solar-powered cars designed by clever college students. For the rest of us, the days when cars will run mostly or entirely on solar are still far far away. But some carmakers are tinkering with the idea of putting solar cells on the rooftop to power some onboard electronics. Fisker’s first model, the plug-in hybrid Karma, comes with solar cells on the roof.
7). Airplanes: If solar-powered cars are really just fantasy at this point, then solar-powered planes seem an even more remote possibility. But that doesn’t mean attempts aren’t being made to fly airplanes on solar power. Unmanned solar aircrafts might work because they don’t need the power to keep passengers and their luggage in the air. A light-weight aircraft with only the pilot board could also work, and the idea has been tested at various flights.
8). Camping gear: Off-grid use of solar cells isn’t new, but using them for camping gear has become more popular over the years as we rely more and more on our mobile gadgets to navigate and communicate. Now you can get flashlights, handheld radios, watches, water purifiers and just regular chargers to run more gadgets.
Photos courtesy of Portland, Peellden and Solar Impulse