Solar Experiments Begin with Small Panel

Solar power can be a part of everyday life in many different ways, from tiny solar-powered calculators to a home rooftop solar power system. There is great potential for interesting solar power projects. But before that: some investigation to get orientated.

The low-power capability of the 8-bit PIC micro controller might make an interesting pairing with calculator-sized solar panels, but let’s not overly constrain ourselves on power budget until we are comfortable dealing with it. Similarly, a home rooftop solar system is well into the realm of power that can kill, and thus a bad idea for beginner experimentation.

Let’s learn with cheap things first by starting with a small solar panel from Harbor Freight. Item #62449 is designed to be placed in a parked car to keep its battery topped off with solar power. With the coupons typical of Harbor Freight, it should be obtainable for less than $10.

The panel is advertised to supply power to a car battery. So our first quick-and-easy experiment is to wire it up to an accessory meant for car power: an USB charger designed to plug into the lighter socket.

Small solar

This particular USB charger has a blue LED to indicate power. When the solar panel is placed in direct sunlight, the blue LED illuminates. Unfortunately it doesn’t do much beyond that – if a USB peripheral is plugged in to charge, the LED goes dark and there is no sign of charging taking place.

Well, we’ve tried the easy thing first. Now we start poking around to better understand what we’re dealing with.

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