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Solar Powered Lighting: Energy-Saving, Green Fixtures for Your Home

Solar powered lighting provides perfectly energy-efficient lighting both indoors and outdoors.


Due to recent advances in solar cell technology, solar powered lighting has become increasingly popular for those looking to save on energy and installation costs in their home. For the most part, solar lighting is outdoor lighting, charging during the day and then emitting light at night. However, there are increasing indoor options for solar powered lighting that many people may not have considered.

How It Works

Solar powered lighting actually has a few steps to it, which accounts for its generally higher cost over other forms of energy. First, a “photovoltaic” solar panel is used. This solar panel turns light (“photo-“) into energy (“-voltaic”) by turning the light directly into an electric current. This is different from the standard “solar thermal collectors” common to larger solar energy panels, because it gets its power from the light of the sun, rather than the heat of the sun.

This process is less efficient but less expensive than thermal collection. It also has the obvious disadvantage of only working during the day, especially for outdoor lighting (remember that joke about the “solar-powered flashlight?”). Therefore, solar lighting then must store the energy that it collects in batteries. These batteries then must hold enough charge to shine as much as they are needed at night. They can hold enough charge for anything from decorative lights to solar lamp post lights.

Advantages of Solar Powered lighting

The primary advantage of solar powered lighting is its energy costs. Solar lights cost literally nothing to power. Therefore, if you are doing any extensive lighting of your outdoor spaces, you can actually save yourself quite a bit of money by using outdoor solar lights rather than using traditional cabled outdoor lighting or even low voltage outdoor lighting.

Solar Path Light

By using a small solar panel, solar-powered lights cost nothing to power.

In addition to the savings that come from energy costs, you will save money on installation as well. Normally, for outdoor lighting, you will need to put cables deep underground in order to keep them safe from the elements and to keep yourself safe from electrocution. Solar lighting, on the other hand, can be placed anywhere that receives sunlight without any further installation including difficult-to-reach places like solar-powered garden lights where digging would become dangerous. Depending on the amount of lighting you need, this can offset the increased cost of the fixtures themselves.

Flexibility is another important advantage of solar lighting. For traditional cabled lighting, once you’ve installed a light, it is there forever. However, solar lighting doesn’t require cables and therefore can be (relatively) easily moved from place to place. This enables you to change your backyard layout easily, or even to keep solar lights in your garage to be brought out for special occasions (just remember to bring them out a day early!) or for seasonal use such as solar-powered Christmas lights.

Of course, one of the primary reasons that people prefer solar powered lighting is that it is much friendlier to the environment than traditional lighting. Infinite energy efficiency is a good thing. Many people choose to slowly green their homes over time, ensuring that they provide less and less of a carbon footprint as they can afford to do so. See the “Disadvantages” section below for other environmental considerations, however.

Disadvantages of Solar Powered lighting

Unfortunately, solar powered lighting has some disadvantages that should be taken into account. The first of these disadvantages is that solar powered lighting is currently not as powerful as other forms of lighting. This is because the process of turning light into energy is not especially efficient, and then the batteries can only store so much power. When purchasing a solar-powered light, therefore, you should make sure that it provides sufficient luminosity for your needs. For outdoor lighting, solar-powered lights generally make poor security lights, but are good for path and deck lighting.

Cadmium Telluride

The long-term environmental effects of cadmium telluride (CdTe) are unknown.

The second potential disadvantage is cost. Although you will save on energy and installation costs when using solar powered lighting, the lighting fixtures themselves are usually significantly more expensive than traditional cabled lighting. Depending on what uses you have for the lighting, you may never make back the extra money that you spent on the fixtures in the first place. In general, if you are putting in a few lights, you will save money by using solar-powered ones, but the more lights you install, the cheaper installation becomes per fixture.

Finally, the environmental impact of solar powered lighting isn’t cut and dried. While it is infinitely more energy efficient than cable lighting, solar powered lighting uses a substance called “cadmium telluride” or CdTe in its solar panels. Indeed, it is the development of CdTe panels that made solar panels inexpensive enough for home use. However, the environmental impact of CdTe is widely debated. The United States Department of Energy has accepted its use, but the European Union has declared that it is a carcinogen. China bans its use outright. If trying to settle an environmental dispute that even stumps the experts doesn’t sound like fun, the most important thing is to remember to recycle the cells properly. Even those in support of CdTe recognize this necessity.

Indoor Solar Lighting?

Indoor solar lighting sounds like even more of a paradox than solar lighting itself. However, there are a number of options for using solar lighting indoors, some of which involve using solar fixtures and some of which involve using ad hoc ways of providing solar powers to individual rooms or structures.

Solar Panels

Solar panels can be affixed to almost any rooftop.

Solar lamps are perhaps the most straightforward way of providing indoor solar lighting. A solar lamp is a lamp that you put on a table or floor, but is actually powered by the light of the sun. Solar lamps include small solar panels and batteries just like outdoor solar lights. The trick, as you might have guessed, is to place your solar lamp by a window. So long as the window receives sufficient light, you will be able to power that light at night and even during the day.

The other option is to use solar panels on the roof of structures so that all the lighting in that room or structure is powered by the panel. This is especially common in detached garages and sheds. Rather than run a power line to the detached building, solar panels can be placed on the roof of that building. This can either be done generally, so that the panels empower the entire structure, or it can be done using fixtures that are individually wired through the roof of the structure and have solar panels attached to them. Such lights are now widely available for purchase and can cut down on energy costs in your detached spaces.

Putting It All Together

Solar Powered Lighting

The solar panels most of us are familiar with actually collect heat, not light.

Solar powered lighting
The solar panels most of us are familiar with actually collect heat, not light.

Solar powered lighting is an increasingly important part of home lighting:

  • The fixtures cost nothing to power and will save money on energy costs
  • The fixtures are not as powerful as cabled fixtures, but are comparable for everyday use.
  • The environmental impact is mixed, because of the toxic effects of cadmium telluride.
  • Solar lighting can even be used indoors.

With these things in mind, you will be able to make informed decisions about the use of solar lighting in your home.

More Solar Lighting Articles:

Solar Powered Christmas Lights: Power-Efficient Lighting for the Season
Solar powered Christmas lights provide increased flexibility and decreased power costs.

Solar Lamp Post Lights: Modern Technology for a Classic Look
Solar lamp post lights provide your home with a Victorian look while saving on energy and installation costs.

Solar Powered Garden Lights: Energy-Efficient and Flexible Lighting Fixtures For Your Foliage
Solar powered garden lights provide a high level of flexibility at no energy cost.

Solar Yard Lights: Give Your Yard Dimension and Sparkle
Solar yard lights allow you to provide form and excitement to your yard.

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