While first developed as a practical power source during the 1950s, solar systems were too expensive for mainstream use until the 1970s. Starting from their early use to power Cold War era military satellites, silicon photovoltaic solar cells achieved their first commercial success in places where electricity was not available, such as lighthouses and off-shore oil rigs.
To transform light from the sun into usable energy, photovoltaic cells harness an electric current created by electron flow between the layers of silicon in the cell, which is activated by sunlight. Solar panels typically consist of 36 to 72 photovoltaic cells, and the panels themselves can then be connected to create a solar photovoltaic system for larger installations. Excess energy can be stored in batteries for later use. The solar energy industry is constantly evolving in the efforts to make panels smaller, more efficient, and more affordable.
Today, the image of solar power is evolving from an alternative to traditional energy sources to being viewed as a cost-effective solution. Installation of solar powered lighting does not require the complicated infrastructure, trenching, and wiring expenses necessary for electrical hookups. Long-term maintenance and operational costs are reduced through the use of easy-to-clean panels, electronic components, LED luminaires, and recyclable batteries.
The environmental benefits of solar lighting are considerable as well. Drawing upon natural light, solar power is an emission-free, infinitely renewable resource that reduces your carbon footprint. Because solar lighting does not have to be connected to the electrical grid, minimal physical disturbance is required for installation, making it ideal for parks, sacred sites, and environmentally-fragile land. Solar lighting may also be helpful in achieving various green building certifications.
While at this time there are no LEED credits specifically relating to solar lighting alone, it can instead be a useful strategy for contributing to multiple LEED goals. Relevant credits may include light pollution reduction, optimizing energy performance, renewable energy production, and more. Green Globes criteria include measuring and decreasing energy consumption and protection of sites, both of which could benefit from the minimally invasive nature of solar lighting. The Living Building Challenge, as well, includes standards for energy reduction and net positive energy.
Incorporating solar design into architecture is becoming more common as the profession looks forward to increasingly sustainable buildings. Designers worldwide are looking to minimize the amount of energy used by their buildings, often leading to the inclusion of either (and sometimes both) passive and active solar design systems. Solar power is less susceptible to changing energy prices, providing for future savings compared to other power sources. Also in the face of a natural disaster or other loss of power, solar lighting is a reliable source of light.
Paired with LED lights, solar is practical for areas requiring illumination for personal safety, including parking lots, paths and trails, and remote sections of a property. It is ideal for temporary needs, ranging from construction sites to a security backup in areas where underground wiring requires replacing or is prone to copper theft.
Installation of off-grid solar lighting systems is quick and easy, requiring minimal tools and equipment. A project can be completed in days compared to the weeks required to install traditional electrical wiring. As many systems are pre-configured to connect together, general contractors and existing work crews are able to complete most installations without an electrician on-site.
Solar lighting is an increasingly attractive option when it comes to servicing construction sites, powering remote areas, increasing personal safety at night, and combatting rising electricity rates. AEC Daily’s course on off-grid solar lighting systems will show you the benefits of this technology as a flexible, environmentally friendly, and affordable lighting solution.
The course outlines the main parts of a complete solar lighting system: photovoltaic solar panel, charge controller, battery, and LED driver/LED fixture. There are detailed descriptions of each of these elements, explaining how they function and provide maximum energy efficiency. You will learn how to calculate array-to-load function, and discover why a bigger battery isn’t necessarily a better one. The flexible control options of LED fixtures are discussed, and how to match them with the other system components. Advice is offered on what to look for in a supplier, along with several case studies of systems in action.
For more information about this course, visit AEC Daily's website.
The basis for this article is a continuing education course sponsored by SOL® by Sunna Design. This course is managed and maintained by AEC Daily, one of the world's largest sources of FREE continuing education for architects, engineers, and construction professionals. Note: You will need an AEC Daily user account to access the full course and earn CE credit.