Hidden Solar – Power Behind the Scenes 

We are seeing more and more solar popping up all over the UK – from solar farms and roof top installations to floating panels of the beaches of Scotland. And, we’ve had smaller arrays doing decent work powering hand-held equipment and garden lights for decades now.
Hidden Solar – Power Behind the Scenes 
Image by Chris Engel from Pixabay

Solar panels are also working behind the scenes powering everyday items and reducing all our carbon footprints.

So, let’s take a look at where solar is used in our everyday lives but we barely notice it.


Ever been to a remote campsite with an electric barrier? Or driven through the countryside and seen automatic gates? Then you’ve seen solar in the wild!

Solar requires no cables or connection to the grid, so every unit can be totally independent. The amount of power required to trigger sensors and operate a small motor doesn’t need a full, 240-volt feed, often, that is not possible anyway.

These are becoming increasingly popular as we strive to maintain our walkways, roads and lawns – we don’t need to dig anything up to get power to the security barrier.

Traffic Lights / Crossings

UK councils are turning to solar power for safety and warning lights – and it is about time. The advantages of using solar for these installations are multiple – saving money on electricity, increased reliability and no digging up the roads to install wires and cables.

One example is Hartlepool council installing warning lights at Greatham Level Crossing in Hartlepool.

Senior Traffic Technician, Peter Nixon, said “We needed to illuminate the sign near to the level crossing and it was difficult to get a supply to the column.’

So, not only is solar a cleaner, cheaper and easier way to power warning lights, it also means we can power them ‘off grid’ which is great for level crossings and other remote locations.

Street Lights

It seems so obvious to use solar to power streetlights. They would need to have batteries to power them in the evenings, but the power needed to illuminate an LED is minimal, so that wouldn’t be too big a problem.

Streetlights are as much for safety as they are to see where we are going, so they must be reliable. One of the biggest barriers to rolling solar streetlight out across the UK is the difficulty of keeping the panels clean and working at full efficiency.

The tech is coming but it’s a slow uptake. When researching this subject our Solar Elfs could only find a few reports on solar streetlighting but we did find a few councils were taking it up, like in Shewsbury. Their town council have installed 21 retro-looking solar lights along Victoria Avenue in the town.

TFL have also been experimenting with solar streetlights, so keep your eyes peeled for those panels.

Swimming Pools

This is another fantastic way for local authorities to save money and there are a few different ways they can do it. Thermal solar is a great way of converting daylight into heat and has been used to heat private pools for years.

But, with energy prices spiralling and businesses struggling, more leisure centres are contemplating using solar energy. Like the plans that have been submitted for fitting solar panels to Sandford Park Lido in Cheltenham to save the facility from closure.

One of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the country, the cost of heating and running the facility was bankrupting it – so, what better way to control spiralling costs than controlling your own energy.

Counciller Max Willkinson said: ‘I’ve met with the lido to discuss their transition to a future that is financially and environmentally sustainable and I’m pleased to be supporting the lido trust’s first planning application for renewable energy. We absolutely must find ways to protect heritage assets for the future and green energy solutions are central to meeting that challenge.’

Projects like this could save our swimming pools which are closing at the current rate, we have lost almost 400 since 2010.

Bus Shelters

Here we have another example of something that could be set up in the middle of nowhere and miles from any grid electricity – bus shelters.

It is much safer and more inviting if a bus shelter has lighting but it is not always practical to dig cable trenches or have high voltage cables exposed. Solar is the perfect solution, and a bus shelter has unused space on top to either integrate or mount PV panels.

In Bromsgrove they have bus shelters that use wind and solar for their power. The first shelters to be 100% off grid, they have lighting, CCTV, interactive screens and real-time customer information. Each shelter will save 3.6 metric tons of Carbon over 10 years.

TFL are experimenting with digital bus stops powered by solar. Manufactured, installed and maintained by Trueform, they will power lighting and the timetable area.


The world of solar isn’t all glitz and glamour, solar powered bins are one of the most popular solar options for councils up and down the country.

Strictly speaking these aren’t bins but compactors - the perfect solution to inner-city rubbish collection. The solar power is needed to work the compacting element of the machine. Crushing the waste inside means the bin can hold 5 times the amount of a normal bin so it needs emptying less and takes up less room.

As the bin has a power supply, it can use sensers to alert city waste services when it’s full.


Probably the first solar powered thing many of us ever see is a calculator. The early ones were available towards the end of the 70 and were the standard ‘Add, Divide, Times and Take Away’ kind of devices, with the more well know scientific versions appearing in the 80s.

Calculators were perfect for experimenting with solar as they take very little power and ‘amorphous’ silicon can be used in the cells, which is much less efficient than the ‘crystal’ silicon used in most solar panels.

When they launched, solar calculators were expensive. The first, fully solar calculator was the TEAL Photon and it retailed for $39.99 in 1978, which is £144.44 in today’s money. That’s a fair whack for something that only adds, divides, timeses and takes away!

A fully solar, scientific calculator could be as little as £10 today.


Like the humble calculator, watches have been utilising solar power for decades. The world’s first solar powered watch was developed by an American engineer named Roger W. Riehl in 1972 but it was a pretty hefty looking thing with the LED face on the side and tiny panels on the top.

Commercially, solar watches became more affordable throughout the 70s and by the 80s they were on everyone’s wrists, personifying the whole ‘It's the future now’ vibe.

Losing a bit of their appeal in the 90s, solar powered watches are making a real comeback now, with high end designers getting in on the act. Fancy a Cartier Tank Must Solar Beat watch? A cool 2 grand. Or a Tissot T-Touch Connect Solar for just under £1000? You can even pick up the latest version of the classic Casio G Shock for around £400.

Don’t worry though, you can still get a day-to-day solar watch for under a tenner.

The Future of Hidden Solar

The more technology improves, the more it will be integrated into everyday life. From bendy, Graphene solar panels to roads that collect the sun’s energy.

If you want to know how much better things are going to get, here are some new innovations to look out for:

Solar Fabric – Scientists at University of Queensland have developed solar cells that can be woven into fabric which can then be used to make clothing. The idea would be to create enough power to charge a phone or monitor a person’s health using electronic devices.

Solar Roads –this one has been a long time coming and seems like such an elegant solution, countries need roads, and they need power. Unfortunately, the recent experiments have been far from successful with minimal power generated, traffic damage to the panels and even people stealing the equipment. But, tech moves fast, and we should start seeing solar roads being installed in less than a decade.

Solar Windows – technically Solar Window are normal windows with a film of see-through, Photovoltaic material placed on the glass. This could be a brilliant way to generate power but currently the film is about £250 a square metre and only has an efficiency of 12 – 15% so it is, currently, and expensive solution.

Solar Paint – yes, really. This tech is very much in development, but the boffins have managed to mix Quantum dot solar cells into paint to give it a 7% efficiency collecting the sun’s energy. Quantum dot solar cells are the work of scientists at the University of Toronto where they were looking to “better harness the infrared portion of the sun’s spectrum, which is responsible for half of the sun’s power that reaches the earth.’

About the Author: Robert Cathcart is a researcher with over 20 years of experience specialising in solar. He is concerned about pollution, climate change and other green issues.

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