I looked into getting solar panels for my home. The roof's oriented all wrong, and there are some big trees in the way. The solar rep, slow to yield to reality, suggested we put the panels in the backyard. What a lovely sight that would be, and a perfect target for soccer balls and various other errant airborne objects.
That puts me in a group that includes most Princetonians, who by and large like the shade and don't have homes that will conveniently rotate to face south. After a few months of being discouraged, I realized that there are nonetheless large portions of my lifestyle that can be converted to solar power, without the substantial investment in solar panels.
Begin with the realization that all of us are solar powered. The food that keeps us going carries energy harvested from the sun over the last year or so. True, it took fossil fuels to grow, process and transport the food, but fossil fuels are also consumed in the construction, transport and installation of solar panels. An array of panels on your roof might be dandy, but there are other ways of harnessing the solar energy within you and without you. The most retro of lifestyles can suddenly seem cutting edge when looked at from this perspective.
For instance, most people already have a solar powered vehicle, better known as a bicycle. Steep hills somehow seem less onerous when you realize you're drawing your energy from the sun. An electric clothes dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in your home (mine draws 3700 watts) and can be easily replaced by a solar-powered dryer, in the form of a clothesline or foldable drying rack. (Towels still go in the regular dryer, at least until the scratchy-towel-syndrome can be conquered.) My solar powered lighting system (windows) works from sun-up to sunset. And a solar-powered dishwasher frequently takes on the pile of dishes on the kitchen counter. A vacuum cleaner (ours draws a hefty 1000 watts while on) is still handy for rugs and carpets, but a solar-powered broom works just fine for smooth floors.
The body has solar-powered heating and cooling capabilities that can be optimized by matching clothing to the season. The solar-powered mind, too, can play a role. Though I doubt I could meditate naked in the snow, like Buddhist monks, I find my perception of comfort increases if I acknowledge that it is, in fact, summer, and maybe it's okay if the house feels just a wee bit warmer than during other seasons. Air conditioning can get consumed much like coffee. The first cup generates a vague appetite for more, whether it's needed or not.
News articles come and go about research breakthroughs that will make solar panels more powerful and affordable, but we're all still waiting for them to turn into products we can actually buy. In the meantime, and it seems to be taking a long time, the solar-powered self is the best solar cell we've got.