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Adopting solar energy on the cheap

Solar energy is a resource that too few people take full advantage of, usually because of the upfront cost. While solar energy can slowly pay for itself over the course of many years, the upfront cost is typically too high for most to make the leap.

Outfitting your house with solar panels and a Telsa Powerwall might be a distant dream, and if so, there are other, more affordable ways you can utilize the sun's power.

CNET's affiliate listing of solar companies and resources can be found here.

Published:Caption:Photo:Robert Niedring/Corbis
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Motion-sensing security solar lights

If you're in need of some lighting around the perimeter of your house, motion-activated security LEDs are widely available and surprisingly affordable. They come in a wide array of sizes and brightnesses and can be installed in a matter of seconds, since no wiring or tools are required -- they simply stick to most surfaces with a strong adhesive.

Motion-activated security lights can typically be purchased for around $16 online and require five to eight hours of direct sunlight to store enough energy to power them through the night, so be mindful of where you place them.

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Solar path lights

Whether you want to subtly brighten the pathway leading to your door or light up the edge of your flowerbed so no one accidentally walks through it, one of the most affordable and cost-effective ways to do so is by using solar path lights.

Solar-powered path lights cost anywhere from a few dollars to upwards of $15 each and usually come in multi-packs. Some people also disassemble solar path lights and use them to make portable solar mood lighting, called sun jars.
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Portable solar generator

Having a portable generator on hand can be extremely helpful in numerous situations, such as during power outages, while camping or working with power tools outside the reach of your extension cable. Having portable power that runs on solar energy is, in many cases, even better. For one, solar generators are completely silent, often more portable than combustion engine generators and are entirely free to recharge.

Comparatively, you will spend more on a solar generator than you would a comparable combustion generator, and they come with their own set of caveats, like the fact that you can't "refuel" at night. Still, Goal Zero has a line of very compelling solar generator models, which range from just $199.99 to $1,399.95 but also require a rather robust solar panel to recharge.

Published:Caption:Photo:Goal Zero
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Emergency phone charger

If all you need is to charge your phone or tablet, a full-on solar generator is probably a bit excessive. Instead, solar-powered power banks for charging mobile devices can be found online from $15 to upwards of $100.

With capacities ranging from 10,000mAh over 30,000mAh, you should be able to charge your phone and tablet multiple times on a single charge of the power bank. And all you have to do to recharge the power bank is sit it in direct sunlight. As a plus, many solar power banks are made with rugged designs, making them ideal for outdoor activities.

Additionally, if you're handy with a soldering iron, you can even make your own solar phone charger, as pictured, for surprisingly cheap.

Published:Caption:Photo:Taylor Martin/CNET
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Solar-powered string lights

Strand lighting doesn't cost a fortune to run, unless you light up your house like the Griswolds every December. Still, wouldn't it be great if those festive lights didn't cost anything to run?

Believe it or not, it's entirely possible. Solar-powered LED string lights are available in white, warm white, multicolored and just about any other color you can imagine. Unfortunately, they do cost a bit more than their AC-powered counterparts, but they can pay for themselves in as little as two or three years. Just remember to remove the batteries before storage to avoid corrosion.

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Solar backpack

If you spend a lot of time hiking, camping or simply outdoors, a solar backpack could be a solid investment. If you're going to be sitting or walking in the sun all day, why wouldn't you want to capture some of that solar energy?

Ready-made solar backpacks can be found for as little as $40, or you can turn your favorite daypack into a solar backpack by clipping a portable solar panel to your pack as you hike and connecting it to a portable power bank.

Published:Caption:Photo:Voltaic Systems
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It may sound crazy, but you don't need to install or even own solar panels to harness the sun's power.

Okay, that's not entirely true. Someone, somewhere needs to have a functional solar grid, but you can do your part in demanding (and helping fund the development of) solar energy with SunPort. It's a tiny device that plugs into an outlet and allows you to use solar energy. The way this works is by measuring the amount of power you use through the SunPort and it "upgrades" that energy to solar power using credits, called SunJoules. This is effectively the same system big companies like Apple, Starbucks or Google have used to "go green," but SunPort allows you to bring it with you anywhere.

One SunPort costs $80 and comes with a year of unlimited solar power (normally worth $20).

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