Lighting Commentary

Is Solar Lighting Ready for “Primetime?”

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On a recent webinar I delivered covering exterior lighting, I was asked about the validity of solar. My unfortunate response, on residential-sized products had to be, “Not Ready for Primetime.”

That weekend, I watched a documentary on Mária Telkes, a pioneering biophysicist who made research into solar energy her life’s work, so much so that she was eventually nicknamed “The Sun Queen.” Unfortunately for her, she was a woman in science in the 40s and 50s and oil was becoming the “Big Oil” behemoth we now know. Because of that, her vision was never nurtured and the potential of solar was never allowed to be realized.

When talking with people who are knowledgeable on solar today, the reason continually stated for its stagnation is “energy storage” and the measured distribution of that stored power. I was struck, while watching the documentary to learn that these were the same challenges she faced and she was attempting to address, while also fighting the patriarchy and the small mindedness of male colleagues. If she was concentrating on these problems in the 1950s and had been provided with a modicum of support, my answer to the designer’s question might have been substantially different today.

I have been attending the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) for about twenty years. The reason this blog post is a day early is because I am on my way to New York for the next installment of this show. A great feature of this show if the “Student/Emerging Designer” section. Clever, interesting and relevant new ideas created by new, recently graduated or emerging product designers are given a prominent, underwritten stage. Many of these ideas are fun, exciting and thought-provoking. A decade or so ago (could be longer!) I talked with a young guy who had developed a solar landscape lighting path light. Rather than the solar collection panel being a wart on the top of the luminaire, he had integrated the panel into the contour of the fixture head. He likewise integrated the color and tone of panel with the finish. It was a beautiful product. I talked to the student/inventor about the solar capabilities. I asked about the storage and distribution of power. He, like Telkes was optimistic. This is a problem that will be solved soon.

Exterior lighting and landscape lighting in particular is a natural for solar. It is the reason this particular question comes up almost every time I talk about outdoor lighting.  As we strive for more energy independence and look for more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, it sure would be nice if we would have supported a person who had different ideas, alternate vison and unique viewpoints. Think about that as you witness governmental mandates against people, lifestyles and education that does not conform to the “norm” (whatever that might be.) Supporting those who think differently might in-fact be the most substantial move we make to insure a better future.

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