Innovation Opening New Frontiers For Solar Energy

Solar energy is powering more than the electric grid, it's taking to the skies. Image source: Solar Impluse.

Solar energy isn't just aiming to upset the utility business, as we know it. Abundant energy from the sun could redefine the way we're transported on a daily basis and how we consume energy on a daily basis.

Beyond the companies who are making headlines like SolarCity , SunPower , and First Solar , there are amazing innovations happening in the solar industry that could transform how we use solar energy in the future. Here are a few that could eventually make their way from experimental phase into revolutionary products in the near future.

PlanetSolar's catamaran sailing through New York. Image source: PlanetSolar.

Planet Solar's trip around the world In 2012, the solar powered boat PlanetSolar was the first to sail around the world powered only by solar energy. Powered by SunPower solar cells, the carbon fiber boat can travel at 14 knots (16 mph). Now done with its objective, it has now become a research vessel and more than just a solar publicity project.

In the future, there's no reason to think solar energy and electric motors won't play a growing role in marine activity. Water pollution threatens both water quality and wildlife around the country and solar energy could eliminate most of that pollution coming from boats on the water.

For the solar industry, the opportunity is tremendous. In 2013, 135,000 outboard boats were sold in the U.S. and if solar energy becomes a standard on boats, whether for propulsion or supplemental electrical power, it could bring a major demand source to the industry.

Solar Impluse's flight around the world While sailing around the world has been done and never seemed very far fetched in the first place, flying on solar energy seems like a stretch. The sun simply doesn't provide enough energy on the relatively small area of an aircraft's surface to propel an airplane on a long-distance flight. Or does it ...

Solar Impluse 2 is planning a flight around the world in the next couple of months, the first such flight with solar power. The aircraft won't be making a continuous flight, but will instead be making stops around the world during a five month trip around the world.

Once again, SunPower's highly efficient and durable solar cells are being used to charge the aircraft during the day and flight will actually take place at night. For now, this is a solar concept that's nowhere near commercial application, but just the fact that solar energy can be used to power an around the world flight says a lot about the industry's innovative ability and aspirations.

Ford C-Max Solar Energi is the first concept car from a big auto company to include solar energy in the drivetrain. Image source: SunPower.

Solar cars are ... almost here Tiny solar cars have been buzzing through races in the U.S. and Australia for years, and the technology is finally starting to make its way into real world applications. Last year, Ford built the C-Max Solar Energi concept car last year that included SunPower solar cells into the roof. As electric vehicles grow in popularity it's only natural that solar cells will be incorporated more regularly in their design.

Given its ties to the solar industry, I would be shocked if Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA) didn't eventually start incorporating solar energy into its design. Even a little charge each day could help ease range anxiety, and last year I calculated that solar cells could add a couple thousand miles of range per year to an electric vehicle.

The nice thing is that vehicle transportation engineering with solar energy has been proven time and time again on a small scale. And an advantage for consumers is that it's completely passive technology. There's absolutely nothing to do with a solar electric car other than to enjoy the miles you get from the sun's energy.

Consumer Goods The other frontier that's starting to open up is solar consumer goods. I use a portable SunPower solar powered battery pack to charge my phone periodically and it would be easy to add more solar power to our lives with minimal daily disruption. (For more on why SunPower is consistently used in solar products click here to see how their cells are fundamentally different from competitors)

Goal Zero, which is now owned by NRG Energy , is on the forefront of solar products with a variety of solar kits, lights, energy storage, and other accessories. Today, you can buy a solar panel that will fit on a backpack and charge batteries to power other devices all day long.

In the next decade, I think we'll see solar energy incorporated into electronics and they'll charge automatically without consumers even knowing. That's how solar energy will grow to be a force in energy, beyond just being on rooftops and in deserts around the world.

Solar energy is already around us all the time, it's about time we figure out how to turn that energy potential into productive uses in the products we use everyday. I think this is a revolution that has just started to show its potential.

The article Innovation Opening New Frontiers For Solar Energy originally appeared on

Travis Hoium owns shares of Ford and SunPower. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and SolarCity. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, NRG Energy, and SolarCity. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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