Solar energy got hot in the 1980s. The economic sting of the oil embargo was still fresh and the air was thick with tax credits, so Innovation Nation put on its thinking cap and began harvesting the resources that were literally falling from the sky: the 1,366 watts of solar energy that constantly rain down on every sunny square meter of earth. Smelling opportunity in those free-flowing photons, huge companies jumped into the sun business. In 1984, the energy giant ARCO teamed up with Fluor, the engineering conglomerate, to erect what was the largest solar farm in the world, a mammoth photovoltaic cluster in the California desert called Carrisa Plains. It was spectacularly unbeautiful -- 120 acres of blue-gray panels, bolted to concrete posts -- and even less efficient. And if its rumored $65 million cost was accurate, then each watt cost about $10, only to be sold to the local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, for pennies.
Thus was born solar's reputation: hopeful, expensive, and ugly. Americans who wanted to participate in this new energy-independence movement had to be millionaires with a south-facing roof or hold a PhD in mechanical engineering. Or both. They certainly couldn't care about how their hardware looked.
Solar has since trickled down to the consumer-products market -- calculators, alarm clocks, air purifiers -- but even there, things haven't looked much better. "When we took an audit of solar products at the point of use," says Robert Brunner, former director of industrial design for Apple Computer and now cofounder of San Francisco -- based Regen, "we realized that most of them look like bad science experiments -- geeky boxes, Rube Goldberg kinds of things. There are very few objects I coveted or wanted to use."
Without covetousness, of course, there is no market. So Brunner's design firm, Ammunition Group, teamed with a New Mexican clean-tech venture accelerator called Noribachi to create patented solar-hybrid devices that also happen to be beautiful. Regen's goal is twofold: Bring charm to a sector that has been devoid of it, and more important, satisfy a huge new appetite -- customers with an urge to do good.
"This is not an 'eat your vegetables' aesthetic," says Brunner. "In this case, form follows function, and then becomes a virtue."
Regen is not alone in its desire to make solar shine, however. Here, examples of great design that finally see the light of day.
REGEN ReVu / $599
"The ReVu is a perfect example of serendipitous beauty," says Regen's cofounder Robert Brun-ner, of the lamp (opposite page) that uses only 4 watts to generate the light thrown off by a 75-watt bulb. "Out of all of our stuff, it's our favorite piece." Regen needed enough surface area (806 sq. cm.) to collect enough solar power to drive five Cree high-performance LEDs. "By chance, it turned out to be plantlike," Brunner says. "It angles up to the sun to collect energy, like leaves." The ReVu stores enough power for up to six hours of use and also plugs into the wall. Available early 2010.
REGEN ReVerb / $2,299
Regen has filed a patent for what it calls a "conformal solar surface" -- an array of small, poly- and mono-crystalline photovoltaic (PV) panels that allow a curved surface to gen-erate electric current. Brunner and his team designed the array to help power this high-end, ultra-efficient flat-panel speaker (with a high-efficiency sub-woofer in the base). It may be the most beautiful and miserly iPhone/iPod dock ever made, drawing only 6 watts but putting out the equivalent of 60 watts (30 watts per channel). A patent-pending user interface tells you how much solar-powered play time you have left. Available early 2010.
REGEN ReBop / $699
The ReBop is an iPhone/iPod dock and charger -- but portable, with its solar panels on the sloping back; speakers cover the front surfaces and passive radiators (for bass response) are on either end. Regen says the ReBop's audio performance will eclipse most high-end iPod docks, including those from Bose. As with all Regen devices, the hybrid ReBop details your power use and a USB out-put can charge any conventional USB-powered device. Available early 2010.
Husqvarna Automower Solar Hybrid / $3,000
Stockholm-based Husqvarna is the world's largest producer of lawn mowers and gas-powered garden tools. In August, the company sold its 100,000th robotic mower. This iteration, covered in 104 photovoltaic cells, looks like a programmable horseshoe crab crossed with a Humvee -- and functions like a Roomba with teeth: It silently, autonomously mows up to half an acre and on cloudy days can be charged using conventional power.
SCHOTT ASI Glass / $100-$150/sq. ft.
Schott N.A., part of the $3.1 billion German glass giant Schott AG, created integrated PV panels that strike a once-impossible technical balance: shade (or complete opacity), natural light, brilliant color, and electricity generation, all in one window. Unlike the big opaque crystalline PV panels on rooftops, this less-than-1-nanometer-thin amorphous silicon semiconductor layer, laminated between two glass layers, allows sunlight to pass through. The result is visible at Coney Island's Stillwell Avenue Terminal, in New York, among other places.
BRUNTON SolarPort 4.4 / $187
Brunton, a high-end camping-gear maker, has been building portable solar arrays for years. The SolarPort 4.4, with two polycrystalline PV panels, can be linked together with up to two other SolarPorts to add power. (A single unit's maximum output is 4.4 watts, enough to charge four cell phones.) It has a USB power output to charge your GPS (or, let's be honest, your iPod) on the trail. And the foldable SolarPort even doubles as a charger for double- and triple-A batteries.
REGEN ReNu / $199
The 9-inch-by-9-inch ReNu portable solar tablet is essentially a portable slab of energy, designed to deliver solar power to apartment-dwellers who can't put an array on the roof. The ReNu can be hung in a window with a suction cup, attached to a window frame, or placed on a table; its battery recharges in four hours and will drive that iPod for about six.
SAMSUNG Blue Earth / PRICE N/A
The solar-enabled Blue Earth phone has a PV panel on the back to extend the duration of a wall charge and boasts a charger that uses less than 0.03 watts in standby mode (versus the industry's typical 1 to 2 watts). The user interface is all about being nice to Mother Nature. An "Eco mode" lowers screen brightness (and battery draw) and improves Bluetooth efficiency; the "Eco walk" built-in pedometer calculates your CO2 emission reduction when you take a stroll instead of drive. It will be introduced in Europe this year. No announcement yet whether it will make it to the United States.
Correction: In the original text we noted that one device uses 4 watts per hour and another .03 watts per hour. The per-hour reference is incorrect. The watt ratings refer to the potential peak usage at any given moment.