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In the beginning it was considered for heating hot water in the home, but solar power use has snowballed to encompass a whole raft of interesting uses across the world. In some ways, it’s only limited by our imaginations, as the myriad uses where solar power is the hero continues to expand. Where there’s abundant sun, there’s scope to harness it and we’re making it generate power in some very interesting and innovative ways.

Waste not - want not

The humble rubbish bin only seems to enter our consciousness when it’s overflowing or conspicuous by its absence. Did you know that in parts of the world, including New Zealand, the sun’s rays are being harnessed to handle waste and make our environment cleaner and tidier? Utilised to compact the rubbish the therefore maximising capacity, this sun-loving solar powered bin is even fitted with a unit that sends data back to base advising that it’s full and ready for emptying.  

Fairways home for solar power

For the keen golfer, the thought of commandeering some smoothly manicured acreage for the installation of multiple solar panels probably isn’t their favourite idea. However, in some parts of the world like Japan and the USA a rethink on golf course land use is taking place. The consideration of biodiversity and water consumption along with the drive (see what we did there?) to create an environmental asset has led developers to convert golf courses and driving ranges into large scale solar panel farms . The average 18 golf course is around 30 hectares. That’s a lot of wide open sunny spaces (with those intermittent and irksome ball hampering trees and ponds) to work with. The social advantage that can be readily argued, is that the solar power generated from this alternative form of land use benefits a far greater number of local residents living in an area than those limited to club members and golf fans. Some may regret the transformation of golf courses to house hundreds of solar panels.  However, the fact is, with interest in golf is waning worldwide  the opportunity to make these vast open spaces the optimal environment for solar panels is an evolution worth celebrating more than a hole in one

Another really cool feature is actually a hot issue in places like parts of Australia where the temperatures regularly soar over 40 degrees celsius. The technology has been designed to detect excess heat preventing contents from combusting and causing damage to the container and its surrounds - particularly pertinent in urban heavily populated areas. Who knew that rubbish management could be handled in such sun-responsive and high-tech ways?   

Oh, islands in the sun!

The concept of floating islands generating solar power perhaps feels like something you might expect from a futuristic James Bond movie or an episode of Thunderbirds. But in 2023, solar islands bobbing about in the sea are very much part of the watery landscape particularly in places like The Netherlands where the population already lives below sea level. Engineers across the globe are experimenting and tackling the challenges head on in respect of things like salt water corrosion and wave movement. But these issues are counterbalanced by the enormous effectiveness of multitudes of sun-tracking panels that bask in all day sun with nothing to obscure them. From a boutique luxury island in the Maldives to the largest commercial ventures being rolled out in places like Japan, China, Chile and the UK, the opportunity exists to literally float an enterprise involving solar panels. With the ocean comprising 71 percent of the earth’s surface it makes sense that we’re literally looking out to sea for the answers in some of our quests for the ideal solar power panel location.  

Water and refrigeration in developing countries

In the west, we take so many of our everyday utilities for granted with the expectation that a turned tap will deliver clean drinking water and the fridge an ice cold beverage. For millions living in developing countries, this basic human need is a luxury that’s out of reach, adversely impacting health and life expectancy. Many of these poorer countries lie on the African Continent with the northeast dominating as one of the sunniest regions on earth. It’s often said that the Sahara Desert is like a “giant solar panel”.  The combined elements of extensive year round sunshine and harnessing that to meet a desperate need for the power generated is improving people’s lives in underdeveloped nations. It has been a complete game charger and continues to extend to geographically remote areas reaching more and more of those who need it.  

As vaccines were rolled out during the pandemic in 2021, countries with no reliable power needed a way to ensure that vaccines being transported over long distances remained stable and potent. Solar-powered fridges were vital in maintaining viability and keeping the vaccines cool for distribution and life saving administration in remote areas. In the same vein, water scarcity in hot countries has inspired researchers and scientists to find ways to combat this with cutting edge nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation (NESMD) - a revolutionary desalination technology. This energy efficient way to deliver former sea water converted into fresh water to thousands of people is literally turning the tide and vastly improving people’s lives and a country’s economy.

Whatever floats your boat

Travelling under sail on the ocean waves has been an eco-friendly mode of travel harnessing wind power since the beginning of time. With the dramatic improvement in panel and rechargeable battery technology, boat builders are now incorporating solar powered systems into the structure. This is prompting sailors to embrace a quieter, less costly and more environmentally considerate journey as the need for fuel when not under sail is removed from the equation.

 Numerous boat componentry is well-suited to this renewable readily available power source when out on the high seas. Motors, navigation systems, onboard electronics and appliances in the galley can all be connected and are now revolutionising the marine industry. In March 2010, the MV Turanor Planet Solar solar-powered catamaran (designed by New Zealandre Craig Loomes) was launched and set out from Monaco to circumnavigate the globe and raise awareness of renewable energies. The 31 metre boat covered in 537 metres of solar panels berthed two years later having travelled over 60,000 kms. It was a massive undertaking which symbolised and highlighted the future for solar powered ocean going travel.  

Now, ten years on, with more efficient, compact and lightweight batteries supporting stronger, lighter solar panels, onboarding them as a boatie’s alternative energy source is becoming a hugely popular option at all levels from small pleasure craft to multi million dollar racing yachts.

Learn more about solar power

Visit our comprehensive Solar Power guide to learn more about using solar power in New Zealand - and whether it might be right for you.