By Lee Masterson 

Across America and the globe, interest in solar power is rising. Many homeowners have installed solar systems in order to generate their own renewable power. There are, however, plenty of other ways to harness the sun’s energy beyond the standard solar panel array. While some applications may seem like a bit of a novelty, there are many inventive solar technologies that are designed to improve various facets of everyday life.

Solar-Powered Trash Compactors

Across America, cities have embraced the concept of reducing litter by installing solar-powered trash and recycling compactors. These compactors are stationed in high-traffic public spaces around many U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, San Diego, Cleveland, Dallas, and Philadelphia.1 

The trash and recycling compactors operate on a regular 12-volt battery that is kept charged by a solar panel fitted to the top of the unit. The machines, which look rather like a vending machine, are designed to hold at least four times more than the average sidewalk trash bin—this effectively reduces the number of collections required to keep them empty.2 

Outdoor Solar Lights

Garden lights fitted with tiny solar panels can light up a walkway, and guide guests towards a home during evening hours. Likewise, wall-mounted solar lights help to illuminate front steps, porch and doorways at night using power generated from the sun. Exterior solar lights can help homeowners save money on electric bills throughout the year. Another inventive use for exterior solar lighting are solar-powered holiday lights—these festive fairy lights enable families to show their holiday spirit without running up utility costs.  

solar powered trash compactor

Households in Metuchen are saving an average of $780 per year on their electric bills.

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Large scale solar generator

Spray-On Solar Panels

Not every home is capable of supporting a full-scale solar power system. There are many variables in play that determine whether a solar setup is a good investment in a given situation. For homeowners who want to go solar but are unable to install a large solar panel array, the invention of photovoltaic paint may prove to be a viable solution for their clean energy needs.3 

Photovoltaic paint is based on semiconducting polymer nanoparticles that are suspended in water-based paint.4  It can be painted directly onto the roof or exterior wall of a building in order to produce electricity. However, it’s also worth noting that the conversion efficiency of solar paint may not be as high as the traditional roof-mounted solar panels.5 

Solar paint is significantly cheaper to produce than silicon solar panels, which may make it a more affordable option for many homeowners. There are still kinks to work out, however, before photovoltaic paint makes its way to the consumer market. In the near future, spray-on photovoltaics may revolutionize the production of solar power.

Solar-Powered Vehicles

While there has been plenty of buzz regarding the potential of solar-powered cars, advancements in solar technology have enabled the development of other solar vehicles as well. For example, inventors have created solar-powered boats that reduce reliance on fuel to keep motors running.6 

Solar-powered planes have also become a reality. These single-person airplanes are able to fly across large distances without using any jet fuel, as they’re powered solely by the solar panels fitted across the wings. In July of 2016, pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg flew their Solar Impulse 2 plane all the way around the world, and didn’t use a single drop of fuel.7  This historic feat may pave the way for the future of environmentally-friendly aviation.

Solar Panels in Space

Another exciting application of solar power are space-based solar panels. In fact, the International Space Station is powered by eight large solar panel arrays, which are mounted on wings extending from the station.8  These arrays contain over a quarter million solar cells, and are capable of generating enough electricity to power 40 homes.9  Since this is more than the station needs at any given time, the extra solar electricity is stored in battery banks. These batteries provide electricity to the space station’s critical systems when the station is in shadow.10

Solar Fountains

One of the biggest challenges of installing a fountain, bird bath or water-feature is finding a way to deliver power to the pump system. That’s where solar-powered fountains offer a great solution for homeowners. The pump is powered by a small solar panel, thereby allowing homeowners to install a cord-free fountain anywhere on their property.

solar powered vehicles, like boats, are increasingly common

The Future of Solar Power is Bright

The proliferation of many creative solar-powered technologies indicates that people are embracing renewable energy in their everyday lives. The truth about home solar is that while homeowners don’t need to install an array in order to take advantage of solar energy, the greatest monthly savings will come from a larger solar panel system. This is not to say that monthly savings are the only motivator for adopting solar power—we all care about the environment, too. Innovative ideas such as solar-powered airplanes and trash compactors will pave the way towards a more sustainable future for all.

If you found this article to be helpful, please share! And be sure to enter your zip code at the bottom of the screen to see if going solar is right for you.


  1. “Solar-Powered Trash Compactors for Municipalities .” Waste Management, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
  2. Hardcastle, Jessica Lyons. “Solar-Powered Trash Compactor Slashes Waste Management Costs.” Environmental Leader. Business Sector Media, LLC. , 03 June 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
  3. Taguiam, Rhenn Anthony. “Scientists Develop Paint That Can Absorb Solar Energy.” Nature World News. Nature World News, 23 Nov. 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2017.
  4. Thurston, Charles. “Photovoltaic Paint Heats Up.” Coatings World. Rodman Media, 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  5. Thurston, Charles. “Photovoltaic Paint Heats Up.” Coatings World. Rodman Media, 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  6. Richard, Michael Graham. “7 Awesome Solar Boats You Must See.” TreeHugger. Narrative Content Group, 02 Feb. 2009. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  7. Carrington, Damian. “Solar Plane Makes History after Completing Round-the-world Trip.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 25 July 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  8. NASA. “International Space Station | Solar Arrays.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  9. McKinnon, Mika. “Solar Panels Are the Overlooked Workhorses of the International Space Station.” Gizmodo. Gizmodo Media Group, 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.
  10. NASA, “International Space Station”

Editor: Kelsey Tollefson

Executive Editor: John Lenker