GreenSpace: A waving queen and other solar-powered wonders

The solar panel on Her Majesty's purse makes her hand wave ... and wave ... and wave.
The solar panel on Her Majesty's purse makes her hand wave ... and wave ... and wave. (Kikkerland Design)
Posted: December 11, 2012

The queen of England has gone solar.

The panels may not be on Buckingham or Balmoral. But there's one on the tiny black purse of a six-inch queen figurine, and the power it generates makes Her Majesty's white-gloved hand wave.

This could be the best evidence yet that the technology is becoming better, cheaper, smaller, faster. More a part of our everyday world. If also, at times, a tad silly.

This year, solar gadgets have proliferated. And by "gadgets," we mean everything from kitschy gizmos to emergency equipment to snazzy charging devices that will keep your cell phone topped off - even by mere lamplight.

We may not have panels on our roofs yet - although New Jersey is No. 2 in the nation for that - but we all have panels in the small household calculators we started seeing more than a decade ago.

Then solar garden lights became popular.

Now, there are solar-powered wristwatches. Solar-powered speaker systems. The panel on a new Kindle cover powers both the device and a reading light. Logitech has a solar keyboard for Macs, iPads, and iPhones.

The toy industry is seeing a bit of solar flair. Panels power plenty of perky dancing flowers and scuttling insects, to be sure, but also a wealth of science kits, said the Toy Industry Association's Adrienne Arpell.

Solar kits for youngsters are sneaky - focusing on the fun. But older kids are so into this stuff that the industry coined a term - geek chic.

Outdoor retail co-op REI has seen a 100 percent growth in sales of solar devices over the last year.

The electronics charging market is, perhaps, where solar gadgets have made the most difference.

"All of us lead increasingly itinerant lives," said Steve Koenig, industry analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association. "It's a challenge to keep these devices charged up."

So instead of dashing around the airport in search of an outlet, just put a tiny set of panels in a window and keep on powering your device.

One guy with a ringside seat to all this is Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. He's got it all.

His cellphone cover has panels on the back that charge in ambient light.

It's just a trickle, sure, but his phone used to run out of juice by 1 p.m. Now, it goes all day.

He has a briefcase with panels on it.

With all our electronics these days, "we're tethered to the electrical outlet," he said. "These products are freedom."

At home, he keeps solar-powered flashlights on a sunny windowsill. When the power goes out, they're ready.

On cold days, Resch takes his kids outside to cook hot dogs in a solar cooker - a shiny, boxlike device that concentrates sunlight to produce heat.

Kids, he said, "understand that if you can take the sunlight that falls on Earth and turn it into power, that's a lot more exciting . . . than sticking a couple batteries in a toy."

Speaking of which, solar toys must be a requirement for anyone in the solar business.

They're all over the offices of Resch's colleagues. He even has a tiny turbine powered not by the breeze, but by a panel.

Jason Baxter, a Drexel engineering professor who does solar cell research, has a solar-powered helicopter toy on his desk.

But really, will all this make a difference?

These devices "by no means represent the thrust" of a $15 billion industry, Resch said.

Still . . .

Solar cookers are sought after by humanitarian organizations for remote areas and refugee camps.

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory is funding a project to take solar lanterns to villages in India.

For every solar-powered Sunnan desk light that Ikea customers buy, the company is sending one through UNICEF or Save the Children so kids in remote areas in India and Pakistan can read at night. The count is 600,000 so far.

And in a very real way, Resch said, the more solar we use, whether it's on buildings or toys, the more we can advance the technology.

A phone charger or a reading lamp, no matter how practical - or even a waving queen of England, no matter how silly - "might not put a dent in the world's energy problem," he said. "But if it raises awareness . . . you never know who you're going to inspire."


"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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