Solar System Wars: Walmart Versus Tesla

It seems like hardly a day goes by that doesn’t see some news story splashed across our feeds that has something to do with Elon Musk and one or another of his myriad companies. The news is often spectacular and the coverage deservedly laudatory, as when Space X nails another double landing of its boosters after a successful trip to space. But all too often, it’s Elon’s baby Tesla that makes headlines, and usually of the kind that gives media relations people ulcers.

The PR team on the automotive side of Tesla can take a bit of a breather now, though. This time it’s Elon’s solar power venture, Tesla Energy Operations, that’s taking the heat. Literally — they’ve been sued by Walmart for rooftop solar installations that have burst into flames atop several of the retail giant’s stores. While thankfully no lives have been lost and no major injuries were reported, Walmart is understandably miffed at the turn of events, leading to the litigation.

Walmart isn’t alone in their exposure to potential Tesla solar problems, so it’s worth a look to see what exactly happened with these installations, why they failed, and what we as hackers can learn from the situation. As we’ll see, it all boils down to taking electrical work very seriously and adhering to standards designed to keep everyone safe, even when they just seem like a nuisance.

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Soak Up The Sun With This 3D Printed Solar Harvester

At first glance, adding solar power to your project might seem easy. Get a photovoltaic panel, point it towards the big ball of burning gas in the sky, and off you go. But in reality, there’s a bit more to it than that. Especially when you’re trying to do something on a small scale. Without a rooftop full of panels pumping out power, you’ve got to take what you can get.

If you’re looking to power small electronic devices such as sensors with a single solar panel, [Vadim Panov] has put together a very concise write-up and video on building a low-cost solar harvester. It combines a relatively small photovoltaic panel, a charging circuit, and a battery for energy storage into a easily mountable package. He’s provided all the details necessary to create your own version, all you have to do now is come up with the application for it.

As far as the electronics go, this project is about as straightforward as it gets. The three watt panel is connected up to a simplistic charging circuit, which in turn feeds into a single 18650 cell. You might be wondering why a charge controller is even necessary in such a simple set up. One problem is that the output voltage of the panel is higher than that of the battery. You also need a blocking diode that will prevent the battery from discharging into the cell during the night or in cloudy conditions.

While the electronics might seem elementary to some readers, we think the 3D printed case alone is worth taking a look at. Not only has [Vadim] come up with a design that perfectly encloses the fragile solar panel and associated electronics, but in the video after the break, he also explains how the entire thing can be made waterproof with an epoxy coating. As 3D prints can have a tendency to be porous, this technique is definitely something you should file away mentally if you’ve been thinking of deploying a printed enclosure outdoors.

Whether you’re looking to power environmental sensors for as near a century as is technically possible or a portable OpenWRT router for mobile anonymity, these small solar panels hold a lot of promise if you know how to work around their limitations.

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Solar Circuit Sculpture Pumms The Night Away

A word of warning: Google for the definition of the word “pummer” at your own risk. Rest assured that this beautiful solar-powered circuit sculpture fits the only definition of pummer that we care to deal with.

For the unfamiliar, a pummer is a device from the BEAM style of robotics, a sort of cyborg plant that absorbs solar energy during the day and turns it into a gently pulsating light that “pumms” away the dark hours.

[Mohit Bhoite]’s take on the pummer is an extraordinary model of a satellite executed mainly in brass rod. His attention to detail on the framework boggles our minds; we could work for days on a brass rod and never achieve the straight lines and perfect corners he did. The wings support two solar cells, while the hull of the satellite holds a dead-bugged 74HC240 octal buffer/line-driver chip and all the other pumm-enabling components. A one farad supercap – mounted to look like a dish antenna – is charged during the day and a single LED beacon blinks into the night.

No schematic is provided, but there are probably enough closeup shots to reverse engineer this, which actually sounds like a fun exercise. (Or you can cheat and fetch the PDF copy of the old Make magazine article that inspired him.)

Hats off to [Mohit] for a top-notch circuit sculpture. We’ve seen similarly detailed and well-executed sculptures from him before; something tells us this won’t be the last.

Thanks to [Varun Reddy] for the tip.

Self-Powered Sun Tracker Takes A Cue From NASA Solar Probe

Getting a solar array to track the sun has always been an interesting problem, and it has led to some complicated solutions. Controllers that use GPS and servos seem to be much in favor these days, but as this NASA-inspired sun tracker shows, the task needn’t be overly complex.

It’s pretty obvious from the video below that [NightHawkInLight]’s solar tracker is just a proof-of-concept for now, but it certainly shows promise. It’s based on NASA’s sun-skimming Parker Solar Probe, which uses sensors at the rear of the probe to maneuver the craft to keep sunlight from peeking around the sides of the shield. [NightHawkInLight]’s design simplifies that scheme even more, by using solar cells as the four sensors. The cells, mounted behind a solar shade, are directly connected to small gear motors that control azimuth and elevation. When a cell sees the sun, it powers the motor that moves the panel the right way to occlude the sun again, thereby cutting power to the motor.

[NightHawkInLight] mentions the obvious problem of what happens when the sun comes up and the array is pointing the complete opposite direction after the previous sunset, but we’re still not sure his solution – a larger array with tracking cells mounted further apart – will work. We’re also not sure how it will scale to larger arrays that need bigger motors to move. We’ve seen such arrays handled with more complicated trackers, of course, but we hope the simplicity of this design can be made practical for real-world use.

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Perfecting The Solar Powered Web Server

Running a server completely off solar power seems like it would be a relatively easy thing to do: throw up a couple of panels, tack on a charge controller and a beefy battery, and away you go. But the reality is somewhat different. Most of us hackers are operating on a relatively limited budget and probably don’t have access to the kind of property you need to put out big panels; both pretty crippling limitations. Doing solar on a small-scale is hard, and unless you really plan ahead your setup will probably be knocked out on its first cloudy day.

So when [Kris de Decker] wanted to create a solar-powered version of his site “Low-tech Magazine”, he went all in. Every element of the site and the hardware it runs on was investigated for potential power savings, and luckily for us, the entire process was written up in meticulous detail (non-solar version here). The server still does go down from time to time if the weather is particularly poor, but in general it maintains about 90% uptime in Barcelona, Spain.

The solar side of the equation is fairly simple. There’s a 50 watt photovoltaic panel charging a 12V 7Ah lead-acid battery though a 20A charge controller. With an average of 4 to 6 hours of sunlight a day, the panel generates 300 Wh of electricity in the best case scenario; which needs to be split between charging the battery and running the server itself.

As for the server, [Kris] chose the Olimex Olinuxino A20 Lime 2 in part because of it being open source hardware, but also because it’s very energy-efficient and includes a AXP209 power management chip. Depending on processor load, the Olimex board draws between 1 and 2.5 watts of power, which combined with charging losses and such means the system can run through two days of cloudy weather before giving up the ghost. A second battery might be added in the future to help improve the run time during low-light conditions, but for now its been working pretty well.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole project are the lengths to which the website itself was optimized to keep resource utilization as low as possible. Images are compressed using dithering to greatly reduce their file sizes, and the site eschews modern design in favor of a much less processor intensive static layout. There’s even a battery capacity display integrated into the page through some clever use of CSS. Even if you aren’t looking to set up your own sun worshiping website, there are tips here for building efficient web pages that could absolutely be put to use in other projects.

If you’re interested in solar projects, we’ve got you covered. From an open source charge controller to building DIY photovoltaic panels, there’s plenty of prior art you should find very…illuminating. Please clap.

Solar Power For Chernobyl’s Second Generation Of Electricity

When featuring cool hacks repurposing one thing for something else, we prefer to focus on what we could get our hands on and replicate for ourselves. Not this one, though, as nobody else has the misfortune of being responsible for 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of radioactive contaminated land like the government of Ukraine. Trying to make the best of what they have, they’ve just launched a pilot program working to put up solar power farms inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

This is sure to invite some jokes in the comments section, but the idea has merit. Thirty years of weather has eroded the worst aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. That area is no longer immediately lethal and people have been making short visits. Spanning from safety inspectors, to scientists, to curious adventurers with questionable judgement making television shows. Supposedly, by following rules on what not to do, it’s possible to keep radiation exposure of a short visit down to the level experienced by frequent fliers. But that’s still too much radiation for long-term stay. That means no homes, office parks, or factories. No agriculture either, as plants and animals grown in the area should not be eaten.

So what’s left? That’s what Ukraine has been struggling with, as it tried to figure out something positive to offset the headaches of monitoring the area.

Well, next to the defunct power plant is the electric distribution infrastructure it used to feed into, and photovoltaic power generation requires little human oversight. Some maintenance will be required, but hopefully someone has worked out how to keep maintenance workers’ cumulative exposure to a minimum. And if this idea pans out, clean renewable energy would start flowing from the site of one of the worst ecological disasters of our era. That makes it a worthwhile hack on a grand scale.

[via Gizmodo]

Big Power, Little Power, Tiny Power, Zap!

Our Hackaday Prize Challenges are evaluated by a panel of judges who examine every entry to see how they fare against judging criteria. With prize money at stake, it makes sense we want to make sure it is done right. But we also have our Hackaday Prize achievements, with less at stake leading to a more free-wheeling way to recognize projects that catch our eye. Most of the achievements center around fun topics that aren’t related to any particular challenge, but it’s a little different for the Infinite Improbability achievement. This achievement was unlocked by any project that impressed with their quest for power, leading to some overlap with the just-concluded Power Harvesting Challenge. In fact, when the twenty Power Harvesting winners were announced, we saw that fourteen of them had already unlocked the achievement.

Each of the Power Harvesting winners will get their own spotlight story. And since many of them have unlocked this achievement, now is the perfect time to take a quick tour through a few of the other entries that have also unlocked the Infinite Improbability achievement.

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