Solar-Powered Radio: Tune in to the Sun!

WBNO-AM in cloudy Bryan, OH was the world's first solar-powered radio station.

| May/June 1980

  • 063 solar powered radio - photos
    LEFT: WBNO's solar array contains 33,600 photovoltaic cells that convert the sun's rays into electrical power. The low brick building in the background is the studio. RIGHT: Batteries store surplus electricity. Hoods and vents dispose of hydrogen gas, a byproduct of battery chemistry.
  • 063 solar powered radio - illustration
    The world's first solar-power radio station was WBNO-AM.

  • 063 solar powered radio - photos
  • 063 solar powered radio - illustration

Bryan, Ohio—located in the flat, northwestern corner of the Buckeye State, 50 miles west of Toledo—is nobody's idea of "Sun City." The area has rainy summers... long, harsh winters... and cloud covers that manage to look ominous even when they're not dropping rain or snow.

It was precisely this no-quarter-given climate, however, that led to the decision to locate the world's first commercial solar-powered radio station in Bryan. The concept's backers felt that, if the enterprise could succeed in such an obviously "nonsolar" location, it would be viable most anywhere. So, to prove the point, WBNO-AM (a 500-watt, dawn-to-dusk operation) transferred its electrical allegiance from Toledo Edison to the sun on August 29, 1979.

Better Than Expected

The $300,000 experiment, which is expected to run for the next 20 years, was designed and is being monitored by the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

At the heart of WBNO's new power system is a one-third-acre array of photovoltaic cells—33,600 of them in all—that convert the sun's rays into direct-current electricity. At noon on a clear day, the setup can produce over 15,000 watts... far more power than the station requires.

In fact, Luke Thaman, WBNO's general manager, reports that the early operating results have been much better than expected. During the course of its first six days of solar broadcasting, the station required 159 kilowatt hours... while the sun-cells produced 170.

In addition, significant quantities of power have been generated, Luke says, even when the sky is partially obscured by cloud cover and rain. Lincoln Lab's engineers estimate that the system will furnish as much as 80% of the station's electrical needs on a year-round basis... although—at the time that this magazine went to press—the actual amount of power provided by the solar cells was already a full 86% of the radio station's requirements!

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