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Solar power’s quiet revolution

In 2003 my county’s sheriff’s department applied for a grant, in cooperation with the school system, to buy a solar powered warning sign. It flashed a warning to drivers entering a school zone to slow down.  They’re common place now, but I remember asking myself if it was possible for a few solar panels to provide enough electricity to keep the sign working day-in and day-out?  The answer was yes.

Ten years later, in 2013, counties all over our region along with VDOT use solar powered signs and traffic cameras to help them with their work.

There has been a quiet revolution in solar power. While the government has invested in large scale solar production, that’s probably not the future of the technology. Large plants are usually only effective in sunny areas such as the desert southwest and the Sahara.  And even then they tend to be fragile and maintenance intensive.

But smaller devices are another matter. Last week, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., I saw my first solar powered laptop. It was surprisingly simple and if I were to describe it, would say it’s nothing more than a plastic blanket with photovoltaic cells stitched into it.

Photovoltaic cells are the remarkable devices, no thicker than a quarter, that turn sunlight into electricity. According to the owner, a Capitol Hill blogger, it worked great.

The military is an early adopter when it comes to solar. Twelve years of fighting in the desert is a strong motivator. Power sources are few and far between.  

One innovation is a solar powered communications suite that the Army has used in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unit is light and portable and there is no generator to service.

The Army Corps of Engineers also employs solar powered water pumps for use in combat zones and here at home. Farmers, whether running large scale operations, or just keeping a few horses or cattle, like I do, have relied on solar powered electric fences for years.

There is even a solar powered squirrel resistant bird feeder. It sounds a little scary to me. But, somehow it’s set up to make sure the squirrels get a jolt, while the birds don’t. They say it’s safe, but there are also several warnings about serious injury, so, I am not sure they’ve got all the kinks out of it just yet. Since I am a big squirrel fan, I can’t deny, I am not too keen on this particular solar device.

NASA recently tested a successful solar powered airplane. It’s extremely light weight and is covered in specially designed solar cells.  It rises, usually operating above the clouds, uses rechargeable batteries, and while losing altitude at night, always stays airborne. It has the potential to stay aloft for weeks at a time. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded two races for solar powered vehicles. Most entries finished the course.

Some of these devices are silly, it’s hard not to smirk at the thought of a solar powered birdfeeder, and some devices are deadly serious. But they have all become a part of our world and our economy. There are several firms in the area that specialize in installing solar systems.  Whether it’s to power pumps, a sensing device, or provide extra heat solar has found a place.  There are a surprisingly large number of people, right here in our backyard, who thanks to this quiet revolution, are making a living in a brand new industry.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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