Beyond generating clean power, solar PV’s unique attributes as a distributed technology result in a variety of applications outside of the major markets of residential, commercial, and utility-scale power plants. Applications include solar lanterns for remote communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and remote microgrids in India; additional applications include powering satellites, the International Space Station, and Mars rovers. Solar can even be applied to fashionable widgets—fans, cellphone chargers, backpacks, and the like.
But what about the nefarious or even sinister opportunities enabled by solar PV? The following are a list of applications that could fall under that list:
- Solar Bitcoin harvesting: With rough estimates at 1 GWh per day, several articles and videos have been posted recently about using solar PV for powering the mining of the Bitcoin. A so-called cryptocurrency created in 2009, Bitcoin allows users to pay for goods and services anonymously. This can range from pizza (not so nefarious) to drugs—and increasingly, weapons and ransom. For now, at least, bitharvesters have a strong incentive to utilize renewables, albeit on a micro scale, for the same reason that data centers do: power consumption is one of the main costs, and reliability is particularly important.
- Solar cannabis: With Colorado, Oregon, and Washington legalizing (and heavily taxing) marijuana for recreational use, entrepreneurs—ranging from DIYers to large-scale agribusinesses—are looking to reduce the large amount of electricity consumed by grow rooms. Breakthroughs in LED pricing have made a major impact on the bottom line—not only for lighting common areas, but also for grow rooms. Grow rooms require lights, heaters, fans, and other appliances that consume large amounts of electricity. A 2012 peer-reviewed study found wide variations in marijuana plant production, and estimated that the large energy requirements of these facilities had lighting levels similar to those of hospital operating rooms (which use electricity at 60 times the rate of a modern home). With many U.S. states moving toward legalization in the future, grow operations will be able to transfer to outdoor facilities and reduce indoor energy demand.
- Solar drones: Since the solar-powered plane Solar Impulse completed its crossing of the Pacific, more attention has been paid toward how solar powers unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). For example, in 2010, Boeing won an $89 million contract to build the SolarEagle unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, designed to fly continuously for 5 years at 65,000 feet. (Boeing had previously built Phantom Eye, a hydrogen powered aircraft that could stay aloft at 65,000 feet for four days.) Airbus has built a competing solar drone, Zephyr, which can carry a 1,000 pound payload. (Facebook and Google have recently launched solar drones themselves, designed for beaming the Internet to remote regions of the world, but fall into the not-so-nefarious category.)
The continued cost reductions of solar make once cost-prohibitive applications more realistic—regardless of their potentially illicit uses.