Solar energy is a significant contributor to the nation's power grid, but the sun's energy is also being used on a smaller scale to power an increasing number of consumer products.
Instead of generating electricity on a large scale, small-scale solar generators are being used for everything from recharging electric devices to cooking food.
The Goal Zero Guide 10 Solar Recharging Kit is made up of two fold-out solar panels that collect enough solar energy to recharge cellphones, music players, and GPS devices. The manufacturer says it will recharge a smartphone in one hour.
These devices are popular with hikers and campers who want to escape to the great outdoors but still want to remain connected to the world. Solar manufacturers have discovered that the technology is perfectly suited to producing the small amount of power needed to keep electronic devices running.
Another product called Sun Juice is a thin, flexible solar mat that its manufacturer says will generate 7.5 watts of power. Because it's thin and light weight, the company says it's easy to transport, whether you're biking or backpacking.
GoSun is a portable cook stove that uses the sun's energy to boil liquids and cook food. The device was designed for use in the wild or in suburban backyards, and the manufacturer says it even works when there's light cloud cover or when it's snowing.
GoSun Founder Patrick Sherwin says the stove weighs a mere two pounds, zips into a clamshell case, and can generate 550 degrees Fahrenheit of heat inside, while remaining cool to the touch outside.
“With the Go, our goal was to make a stove portable enough to take anywhere, with the power to boil water, at a price point that anyone could give a try.” Sherwin said.
In some cases, manufacturers of traditional home products are adopting solar energy to make their products more functional. SunModo -- a company that makes awnings – recently introduced SunShield, an awning that replaces the fabric with arrays of small solar cells.
While blocking the sun from heating up outdoor spaces, or getting inside a building, the SunShield also collects the sun's energy and uses it to generate electricity. Since the awnings are actually solar arrays, they qualify for a 30 percent solar energy tax credit, something an ordinary awning would not qualify for.
"We believe awnings are the next big frontier that will further accelerate the adoption of solar, which will reduce our society's carbon footprint while providing an elegant yet functional shield from sun, wind, and weather," SunModo CEO Rick Campfield said just before the product launch in July.
There will undoubtedly be an increasing number of solar-powered consumer products in the coming years, but they will be using a technology that's been around for decades. As National Geographic recently pointed out, solar power was used to power handheld calculators, making them cheaper and faster than the first models.