Solar power is sweeping the nation and for good reason. Solar energy is a renewable resource that has no negative environmental effects. It also allows homesteaders to limit their dependence on the grid. However, it is impractical for most to start a solar farm, and it is impractical for many to install panels on their roofs. Before plunking down a sizable chunk of change, dip your toe in the solar power craze with these simple solar projects.
Solar power converts energy from the sun into power. As a homesteader, you are already using solar power. The plants in your garden trap energy from the sun in their leaves and use that energy to change water and carbon dioxide into glucose, which is used by plants for energy. When you hang your laundry on the line, you are using solar energy to dry wet clothes. The ability to capture the sun’s energy is in our DNA. Human bodies build specialized proteins that transform light energy into chemical energy. All this is to say, we shouldn’t be intimidated by solar energy. We use it every day.
Solar energy can be harnessed either directly, using photovoltaics, or indirectly, using concentrated solar power. Photovoltaics involves using photovoltaic cells which convert light into an electric current. Concentrated solar power involves focusing a large area of sunlight on a hot spot with mirrors or lenses. Solar energy can be used for water heating, cooking, and ventilation for heating and cooling.
The simplest solar project for beginners is a box cooker. A box cooker, or haybox cooker, is handy when you lose electric power or when the summer temperatures make indoor cooking unbearable. This is easy enough to do with children and efficient enough to cook a meal. If placed in direct sunlight, the box cooker can reach temperatures of 195-302 degrees Fahrenheit. There are many diagrams for a box cooker online but the simplest and least expensive require only an insulated container with a transparent lid.
Another passive solar project that allows you to remain comfortable in extreme temperatures while reducing your dependence on the grid is a solar, or thermal, chimney. A solar chimney uses solar energy to increase ventilation. This is a passive system, meaning it does not require any mechanical devices to work. As the air in the chimney warms from the sun it rises, creating a draft effect that pulls fresh air into the building.
The simplest solar chimney is usually painted black and positioned on the side of the building that receives the most direct afternoon sunlight. The chimney needs to extend past the roofline in order to allow the air inside to rise which creates the draft. For maximum efficiency, build your solar chimney with materials that have high thermal mass. These materials include concrete, brick, and natural stone.
Aside from running your entire operation with solar power, the addition of a solar greenhouse is a practical addition to your homestead. Traditional greenhouses heat cold air (at night or in the winter) with electricity, propane, or gas. A passive solar greenhouse relies entirely on radiant energy from the sun. That energy is typically captured with dark-colored, water-filled barrels. The more barrels, the more heat you can capture. The heat trapped in the water during the day will slowly radiate into the greenhouse as the temperatures drop. The addition of fans will help circulate the heat throughout the entire greenhouse.
When designing your greenhouse, you want to maximize the sunlight coming in with south-facing walls and roofs made of glass or other clear materials and minimize heat loss on north-facing walls and roofs. The north-facing walls and roofs should be constructed with non-transparent materials, such as siding or shingles. To increase efficiency and minimize resources, it is a good idea to attach the solar greenhouse to the north side of an existing structure.
In order to capture the sunlight needed to heat the greenhouse, place dark-colored, water-filled barrels along the north-facing wall. Depending on your geographic location (Alaska will receive less heat than Florida), and the amount of direct sunlight during the day, the passive solar greenhouse will be 10-34 degrees warmer than the outside air. Even if you do not want to build a structure large enough to grow plants through fruition, this is an excellent way to get a jump on the growing season. A two-to-four-week addition to your growing time allows you to increase the income you make from your homestead. If you use your greenhouse at the end of the growing season, your income will increase even more.
You may be interested in harnessing the power of the sun on your homestead but you’re not sure whether solar power is worth the investment of time and money. If that is the case, you can test the waters by purchasing a small solar system. You can go small with a device that produces enough power for your cell phone and computer or you can go a little bigger with a device known as a “plug-and-play.” A plug-and-play is a small structure that is placed in a sunny spot and plugged into an electrical outlet. The energy received from the sun via panels travels to your household and is used as electricity. These devices are the simplest way to see how much of an impact solar energy can have on your electric bill.
If you have been on the fence about incorporating solar energy into your homesteading lifestyle, understand you have been using this renewable resource all along. As with every decision you make for your family and your farm, you don’t need to follow conventional or commercial wisdom and panel your entire property. But neither should you completely dismiss the opportunity to decrease traditional energy dependence. Solar power is something homesteaders should understand, as it allows us more freedom to pursue the lifestyles we are committed to. Whether you decide to use this resource all the time or only during an emergency, it is another valuable skill set to have.