5 Crazy Places You Can Now Find Solar Panels

Increasingly, homeowners and big business are turning to solar to power their homes, factories, and warehouses. The growth of solar was a big story in 2013, and it will likely continue to be a big story in 2014. What many people don't realize, however, is that solar power has gone beyond roof-top panels and solar farms and is now showing up in many surprising places. Today, we're looking at five of the most interesting applications of solar power.

Source: James Marvin Phelps on Flickr.

1. The Vegas welcome sign 
The "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign went up in 1959. Earlier this week, it powered up via solar panels for the first time. It's only fitting that this iconic landmark went solar, giving that Nevada ranks first in solar power potential, according to the Energy Information Administration. 

2. Newspapers
Granted, newspapers do not need solar power, but the technology developed by MIT to adhere paper-thin solar films to flimsy newspaper is fascinating, and will likely have a far-reaching impact on future materials development.

MIT first produced its ultra-thin solar cells in 2011, but it has been working steadily since to improve the efficiency of the quantum dots, as they are known, which is already great enough to power small devices. Perhaps most significantly, the process to develop the quantum dots is nowhere near as energy-intensive as the current process for manufacturing photovoltaics. 

3. Parking lots 
Out in Sandpoint, Idaho, a company called Solar Roadways is building a parking lot out of solar panels. Using layers of special glass, LED lights, and solar panels, this development could transform not just parking lots, but country roads and highways alike. This is one of the more fascinating developments for solar. Instead of wasting space building solar farms, why not just convert roads and parking lots into solar panels?

4. Garbage cans 
Chances are you've seen a BigBelly Solar trash compactor in a city or town near you. The receptacles are outfitted with a solar panel that powers both the compaction capability, as well as a wireless communication pack that lets the refuse company know when the bin needs to be emptied. It's efficient in more ways than one, saving cities, towns, colleges, and universities on collection costs.

5. Cars 
Ford (NYSE: F  ) made a big splash when it revealed its C-Max Solar Energi concept car at the CES conference this week. The vehicle was designed with a special concentrating lens that focuses sunlight onto solar panels atop the car's roof. SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) , one of the leading solar players in the U.S., provided the panels for the vehicle.

A day's worth of sun exposure in any city in the U.S. is enough to power the concept car for an all-electric range of 21 miles. Clearly, it is not built for road trips, but if you park your car outside anyway, and you take mostly short trips, why not buy a car that you never have to buy gas for and never have to plug in? It's not going to replace traditional vehicles tomorrow, but that doesn't mean there's no market at all for this sort of innovation.

Why not?
If it means one less battery to charge or one less wire to trip over, why shouldn't Americans embrace solar power? Not every application has to be a derisive battle about whether or not we can use solar to replace coal on a grand scale. There are plenty of everyday uses for solar power that make our lives easier, and that's important.

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