Solar power has been around since the eighties, but for decades it laboured under the fossil-fuelled suspicion that it was an ineffectual fairytale liberals whispered about at weekend ashrams. The Sun was good for growing plants, and making a day at the beach more enjoyable, but it was never going to compete with coal or oil as a power source. Now a combination of technological advances and sobering environmental factors has pushed alternative fuel sources to the forefront of the public consciousness, with solar power leading the way. No longer strictly a commercial venture, solar power can take your home virtually off the grid, and lead you to a cleaner, greener way of life. The Sun has always been your friend, just think of it now as your own personal power plant.
Heat your home with passive solar power - Before you start attaching solar panels to your roof, realise that the sun is already heating your home. Call it a freebie, and take advantage of it by designing your windows, walls and floors to collect, store and distribute solar energy. Expand Southern-facing windows and use darker, more heat-absorbent masonry in walls and floors that will take in the sun's rays during the day, and radiate heat as the room cools at night.
Cool your home with passive solar power - When you think of the sun, you likely associate it with heat, but passive solar power can also be used to cool your home. The best way to cool is not to heat in the first place, but you can also use heat to cool by taking advantage of natural forces. A solar chimney works on the principal that hot air rises, and in doing so creates a vacuum that is filled by cooler air. The hotter air is pushed out through a vent on the upper floor (or ceiling), and cooler air is continually pulled in to replace it. If you live in a dryer, hotter climate, also look into a solar-powered evaporative cooler, which cools by evaporating water into the air.
Solar panels - Those dark-faced, square panels are what most often leap to mind when someone mentions solar power. Photovoltaic panels convert energy from direct sunlight into electricity that can either be used immediately or stored in batteries. With the cost of electricity continuing it's steady climb, and more efficient and affordable solar panels coming into the market, you don't have to be Ed Begley Jr. or Al Gore to appreciate what solar panels can do for your home. Systems can be standalone or grid-tied, with the former supplying all of your home's electrical needs, and the latter working in conjunction with your existing utility system lines.
Clothesline - Simple, maybe even a bit prosaic, the idea of stringing up your wet clothes for the sun to dry and the world to see seems to have gone the way of the dodo. This is solar power in its most natural form, and you don't have to hang out your unmentionables; instead, try line drying your towels and linens.
Solar powered water heater - Heating water is energy consuming and expensive, accounting for almost 30 percent of household energy consumption, but no one wants to live without hot water. Solar powered water heaters range in price form £800 to £2,500 and some are simple enough for do-it-yourself installation. You'll easily recoup your investment in less than five years (even sooner if you have teenagers living at home).
Solar powered outdoor lighting - Several companies offer full lines of solar powered outdoor and garden lighting that doesn't require wiring. Installation involves sticking the lights in a spot where they can fully appreciate the daytime rays, and the soft hues they emit are reminiscent of the sun at dusk. Beautiful, practical and easy to install, solar-powered outdoor lighting is a can't-miss option.
Solar powered water pump - Your water is heated, now you need a method to get it from point A to point B. Solar powered water pumps serve the same purpose as AC pumps, but without using the power grid or combustible fuels. You're existing water pump can even be converted into one that is solar powered, but for true efficiency install one that was originally designed to work off the sun's energy.
Heat your jacuzzi with solar power - If you're lucky enough to have a jacuzzi in the UK then you should be using the little sun we get to heat it. More than just the sun beating down on the water, a solar pool heater is actually one of the most cost-effective uses of solar energy. Pool water is pumped through a filter and then into the solar collectors, where it's circulated and heated by the energy that the sun has provided. Not only does it save you money, but what's better than having Apollo as your personal pool boy?
Solar power for smaller electronics - Not ready to convert your rooftop into a photovoltaic playground? Dip your toe into the solar power waters by using portable devices to run your smaller electronics. On the market now are the "Juicebag" and the "Powerpocket," which both use photovoltaic energy conversion on a smaller scale, making them a perfect way to juice up your mobile phone or laptop and get acquainted with solar power.
Solar power your garden - Your garden is already dependent on the sun, but now instead of just growing the plants, the sun can play an active part in turning your garden into the Eden it deserves to be. Solar powered garden lights, fountains and even solar powered wind chimes (for when the wind isn't doing it's job) can all be found at your local hardware mecca. Just be glad that there's no need for a solar powered garden gnome.