To harness solar energy you don't need an expensive set of solar panels and batteries. Glass, water, black plastic, and mirrors are all cheaper ways to amplify the effects of the sun on earth.
A greenhouse in the sunlight can create an environment of 80F on a 50F day. If you're going to build one, find a place that faces south, for maximum winter solar gain. Ours is glass only on the top and south side, the house takes care of the north side, and the east and west sides are just clear plastic. We can start our garden starts in there while frost is still on the ground outside. Some days in the spring we open it to the house because it's warmer out there than in the house without building a fire in the wood-stove. It also works as a slow food dehydrator.
Solar ovens can work with the greenhouse affect alone, or can employ reflection as well. Solar ovens are small enclosed spaces made of glass, metal, or even cardboard with reflective material stuck to the inside. There are many different designs for shape and number of sides, but the essence is to reflect/trap solar heat. Solar ovens often don't reach the same temperature as conventional ovens, so cooking times have to be adjusted. They can be made to go hotter by painting the inside black. They are also only seasonal tools unless you live somewhere very sunny.
Anything black can hold a tremendous amount of heat, be it plastic or paint. If you want to have a solar water-heating system, wait no more! A 50 gallon barrel or 100 foot coil of pipe can provide more than enough water for a shower or load of laundry, especially if you have to temper it with cold water to keep from getting burned. Put the pipe up on the roof of your house, or on a section of rock/pavement that will also retain solar heat. Make sure you have a pressure release valve on the system somewhere, because the water will boil and burst the pipe otherwise.
If you want more conventional uses for your solar energy, then build/find/buy a parabolic mirror. It will focus the sunlight to a focal point that you will occupy with a pipe full of water. The concentrated solar energy will cause the water to boil, making steam that your generator can make into electricity for many household appliances, yet ironically NOT including heaters. You have to use hydro-electric power for that.
The oldest form of solar energy however, is in the Vitamin D production that our bodies engage in while in the sunlight. If you're feeling down in mood or energy, try going outside and getting some sun on your skin. Even just seeing sunlight bounced off of plants is rejuvenating, and it's cheaper than Prozac and coffee. The sun makes life on earth possible, why not harness it just a little bit more?