These days when we hear the term solar power our minds move quickly to images of rooftops covered in solar panels or perhaps to large fields of mounted solar panels following the sun throughout the day. No doubt, renewable energy is getting more and more popular and easier to acquire.
However, there are ways beyond electricity that we can harvest and use energy from the sun. With the right mindset, we can create all sorts of useful stuff—warmth, food, fertility, hot water, lighting—by harnessing the energy the sun provides day after day.
Understanding these possibilities, life outside of solar electricity, is just as important if not more important than converting our electrical grid to solar and wind power. With a few tricks up our sleeve, we could be heating our homes and cooking our dinners without electricity at all.
Using passive solar heating
Passive solar heating utilizes the warmth created by the sun when it is out, trapping that heat to use when night falls. This is done by uncovering sun-facing windows during the day, allowing the light and warmth to flow in through them. Then, after the sun has set, closing the curtains will help to hold the warmth inside by insulating the room from the cooling window panes.
Growing your own food
The fact that crops completely rely on sunlight to grow is easy to forget when many of us don’t grow gardens. However, producing food at home is one of the ways we can take advantage of the sun’s energy. We don’t need grow lights because we have sunlight. So, when the season is available, utilizing all that free energy can mean lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Thermal mass heat storage
Part of passive solar heating is often through thermal mass heat storage. Essentially, dense objects like rock, earth, tile, and cement absorb warmth when the sun shines on them during the day and release that heat at night when the temperature drops. This can be utilized inside by putting thermal mass objects near sun-facing windows, or it can be utilized outside by setting up greenhouses and sunrooms along exterior brick or stone walls.
Natural lighting seems a no-brainer for harvesting the sun’s energy with no frills necessary. When we are outside during a sunny day, we don’t need to walk around with flashlights. Well, the same can be true for inside the house as well. We can take advantage of the natural lighting from the sun by opening windows and utilizing the spaces near them instead of using electricity.
Using light-colored, glossy paints on the eaves and interior of the house can help to enhance this natural light. Reflective tiles and surfaces will also help. And, when possible and practical, a skylight by be something to consider.
The sun provides heat for free, and surprisingly, when we keep that in mind, we can use clever devices to utilize that heat to cook. Solar dehydrators are a great way to preserve food for the winter, offering options that vary from sun-dried tomatoes to fruit leather to culinary herbs from the garden. There are also solar cookers/ovens that use reflective surfaces to harness the sun’s heat and cook everything from stew to fresh-baked bread.
Nature left to its own devices makes fantastic compost. Just check out the soil on the forest floor. With the sun powering plants to grow, we can take advantage of this embodied energy and create compost to provide fertility for our gardens. When we cut grass, we can save the grass clippings for the compost heap. We can grow mineral-rich plants, like comfrey and plantain, to cut down for biomass. We can recycle the sun-derived energy from vegetable scraps. Composting plant matter is harvesting the sun’s energy.
Solar water heaters
Solar water heaters are created by exposing water pipes to the sun’s rays to heat the water within them. Then, the hot water generally moves up into an insulated storage tank that keeps it warm for a while. As the water cools, it moves down deeper into the tank and eventually drains back into the solar water heater to warm up again. Electric water heaters are one of the biggest uses of power in most households, so these can be a money-saver, too.
In short, we can utilize the sun’s renewable energy for much more than capturing it with solar panels for electricity. With the right attitude and sense of adventure, we can really make use of this sun’s rays.
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