Simply solar: Cheap tips to harness the sun's power

Day in and day out through the summer, I watched the temperature creep up and the sun beat down on my yard and I wondered: what can I use the sun for? A great source of cheap, green power, but without a roof full of solar panels, how can I put it to use?

Turns out, you don't have to spend five figures to retrofit your house. I found a few good ways to harness the sun, reduce my carbon footprints, stick to my Millionaire Zone principles and have a little fun besides.

I'd heard about solar cooking for years and always wondered if it would work, so this summer my friend and associate, also named Jennifer, gave it a shot. Solar Cookers International ( sells a basic kit made from cardboard and tinfoil and is designed for Third World folks who need a way to cook without fuel or water. Perfect for the suburbs, then, don't you think?

For $25, you can get the basic CooKit and an inexpensive black stew pot from Target for $9.95. The new pot is necessary unless you already have a dark-colored pot and dark lid. Black surfaces are very important in the world of solar.

Jennifer has since used her solar cooker twice, once to make an apple and berry compote to serve over ice cream and once to cook a pot roast.

First, she browned the pot roast on the stove just to save a little time. Then she heated the broth and placed it in the supplied plastic bag, sealed it with a rubber band, and put it on her CooKit. She'd already positioned the solar cooker to catch the sun for a few hours.

The result? "Darned good," she said. "And had I put it out at noon or earlier and let it roast for a good six hours, it would have been ideal." Essentially, it's a no-voltage crock pot.

And her kitchen stayed cool during the hottest part of the day — and during the part of the day my local utility charges the most for its product. Granted, solar cooking works best in warm, dry climates.

A throwback to the "good old days" before today's overabundance of modern conveniences, you really can dry your clothes outside.

I have a friend who does this pretty regularly. She puts the heavier things like bath and beach towels and maybe a few cotton shirts out when the wash is done. The rest goes back into the dryer but is done much faster sans towels. When the air-dried items are done, she tosses them into the dryer for just a few short minutes to fluff them up.

Only one problem — where do you get a clothesline these days?

Turns out clotheslines are back ... and coming on strong, according to Paul Gay, the third-generation of his family to be in the clothesline business. "I sell a lot of clotheslines to younger couples just starting out," he says, "and I think it is because of the green aspect. And high fuel costs, of course." (see his site at

  • Want to keep the hot tub hot, the house cool (in summer) or warm (in winter)? A company called ClearDome Solar offers an assortment of solar blankets, pads and other simple, inexpensive devices to harness the sun.
  • Take a small sip of the sun: You might be ready to go the distance to get off the grid. If so, more power (sorry!) to you. But maybe you're not. You're still in "sun tea" stage with the glass pitcher and tea bags on your windowsill.
  • 15 minutes of research every now and then will keep you familiar with what's coming down the solar pike.

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