Solar Panels for Apartments: 6 Ways for Renters To Go Solar

Renters can still reduce emissions with solar solutions.

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In the past few years, it’s become much easier and cheaper for homeowners to go solar. Renters typically have a harder time, especially in an apartment building. Unless your landlord recognizes the value of going solar and is willing to make the investment—it doesn’t hurt to ask—you might feel like it’s out of your hands. But there are still ways to tap into solar as a tenant if you’re willing to think outside the box a bit. 

1. Portable Solar

A tablet-sized portable solar device powers a smartphone.

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The market for portable solar has really taken off for outdoor recreation, and these devices can also work well in apartments. They won’t power your entire home, but a portable solar product can make a dent.

Some portable units that are lightweight and made for camping, hiking, and RV travel fold neatly into a small package with a handle. A typical system comes with a battery pack, though some systems allow you to plug in directly to the panel. How much energy do they generate? Enough to charge electronics like tablets and smartphones, a laptop computer, and some small appliances. But even these modest energy savings will add up over time. 

2. Portable Panel Kits

A man leans out an apartment window next to a portable solar panel attached to the window ledge; the sun's reflection is visible in the panel..

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Solar panel kits fall along the continuum of portable solar products, but they may be larger and more rigid than compact portable solar devices designed for travel. They usually necessitate having outdoor space where you can safely secure panels—a sunny patio, yard, rooftop, or balcony—so it’s not suitable for all apartments.

A typical kit includes one or more panels and a battery pack. More complex products can be set up by a certified installer, or if you’re handy, you can try a DIY kit. Like other portable solar products, they won't power your entire home, but a solar kit consisting of multiple panels will go further toward meeting your energy needs than a single travel solar device.

3. Drying Clothes in the Sun

Clothes dry in the sun on a clothesline strung between two windows.

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Don’t overlook simple solutions. If you want to save money and energy, one of the easiest and most impactful things you can do is ditch the dryer. Clothes dryers are one of the most energy-intensive appliances, consuming almost as much electricity as a refrigerator. Why not let the sun do the work for free instead? 

If you can’t convince your landlord to install out-the-window clotheslines, consider a more portable, retractable option. These work well on a sunny balcony or patio where you can string the line between two walls or other smooth surfaces. Some retractable lines can be strung between trees or poles as well, particularly those designed for camping. Or you can go fully DIY and simply stretch and tie some string. Who says going solar needs to be high-tech? 

4. Community Solar

An aerial view shows a solar array in a field next to a residential neighborhood.

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If you’re looking for even greater impact and cost savings, community solar is a good choice. In community solar projects, multiple properties share the energy savings generated by an offsite solar plant. Residents use credits from the community solar project to offset their own home electricity consumption, saving money every month on their energy bills. Customers can either buy into the project directly or get a subscription, which is easy to sign up for and easy to cancel. 

You won’t get rich by adopting community solar; at most you’ll be able to cover your monthly bill or perhaps a bit more, depending on which model you opt for and where you live. But over time, you’ll save money without the hassle and cost of trying to set up your own system. 

Some states, including California and New York, are now piloting programs aimed at expanding low-income households’ access to community solar. While these efforts are just getting off the ground, they should help level the playing field and enhance energy equity. For information on programs around the country trying to make community solar more accessible, check out the Low Income Solar Policy Guide.  

5. Green Power and RECs

Most utilities these days offer consumers the chance to purchase green power, which is electricity produced from solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, certain biomass sources, and low-impact small hydroelectric sources. You won’t save money; in fact, green power may even raise your monthly bill a bit. But if you’re committed above all to reducing your carbon footprint, green power is a way to amplify your individual impact. 

Renewable energy credits (RECs) are another way to go. These are sold by utilities companies separately from electricity. Contact your local utility to find out if they offer green power and RECs, and how you can purchase them. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy have partnered on a guide to purchasing green power, which also covers the purchase of renewable energy certificates. Although aimed at businesses, the guide provides helpful information for understanding how both green power and RECs work and includes a list of resources to learn more. 

6. Solar Windows

A woman looks through a window as the sun shines through.

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In the future, solar windows will be a powerful way to generate electricity at home. At the moment, though, these solar window technologies are still in development, lacking adequate efficiency for converting sunlight into energy.

New designs for transparent indoor solar energy-generating windows, including prototypes from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, are attractive alternatives to dark, portable panels that block the light and take up space. A team from Incheon National University in South Korea is working on yet another transparent solar cell that could also be used in mobile device screens and electronics. In all these cases, efficiency is still quite limited, but improving. 

The National Renewable Energy Lab has been working on its own breakthrough solar window that uses thermochromic technology to serve two purposes. Heat from direct sunlight triggers the window to grow darker to absorb light, block glare, and reduce excessive heat indoors, while at the same time triggering the generation of solar energy. The window then returns to transparency when sunlight fades.

A much more modest but very handy product in development is the Window Socket, a portable solar converter that sticks to the window and lets you plug directly into the device. Other design innovations include the elegant bamboo-framed mini panel by Grouphug that can be hung in the window as decor. It must be said that none of these devices are especially powerful, and they take several hours to fully charge. But they generate enough juice to charge a smartphone or other small electronic devices.

There is a lot of buzz around the development of solar solutions that meet the needs of renters and homeowners who can’t do traditional rooftop solar. Expect product options to expand significantly in the coming years. 

Key Takeaways

  • Portable solar units, portable home solar kits, and line drying your clothes are all impactful ways to take advantage of the sun’s energy. 
  • Community solar is a way to buy into an offsite solar array and significantly offset your electric bill. 
  • Green energy and renewable energy credits are also available through many utility companies. Although they won’t necessarily save you money, these are straightforward ways to support renewable energy. 
  • Window solar isn’t widely accessible yet for most residential customers. Look for this to change in coming years as products currently under development come on the market. 
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What can a portable solar panel be used for?

    A mini 45-watt portable solar panel can charge most everyday devices, such as a phone, laptop, and tablet. Some can even briefly power electric hot plates (i.e., camping stoves), televisions, CPAP machines, and mini fridges.

  • What do you need for a portable solar system?

    Portable solar systems are just miniature versions of rooftop solar systems. They require at least one solar panel, a battery, and an inverter that will convert direct current (DC) electricity to alternating current (AC) energy.

  • What's the cheapest way to use solar power in an apartment?

    The cheapest way to harness UV light for energy is the good old-fashioned way: directly from the sun. Dry your clothes on the line. Cook with a solar oven (which you can DIY). Otherwise, invest in a single portable solar panel to put on your balcony.

View Article Sources
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