ByDebra Atlas

Apr 29, 2015
Solar cell technology based on organic materials

Over the past decade, the amount of solar power produced in the United States has grown 139,000 percent. The International Energy Agency projects that solar will be the world’s biggest single source of electricity by 2050. Solar power is currently a fraction of one percent of our total energy production.

A major reason behind solar’s growth, said Jim Patterson, Senior Associate Editor of The Kiplinger Letter, is that it’s easy for homeowners to get into a leasing situation.

Also, there’s more versatility and a wider range of application, Patterson said. Lots of new home construction is being built with solar from the ground up, he said.

Solar installation costs drop graph, from NREL“It’s more cost efficient,” Patterson said. And it’s becoming more of a mainstream feature for builders.

In the long run, said Patterson, you’ll see solar equipment showing up incorporated into new buildings and in parking garages for electric vehicles.

Solar is popular, said Patterson, because it’s saving money for people.

Expanding efficiency

From the solar oven’s invention in 1767 to the introduction of the solar cell and solar heater in the late 1800’s, scientists have worked to improve energy efficiency, building materials, capacity and its innovative uses.

Early solar panels operated at 14 percent efficiency. As the technology developed and new materials were introduced, efficiency rose to as high as 25 percent, where it’s become standard.

Researchers around the world are breaking energy efficiency records.

According to a report, concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems utilizing lenses and curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto small solar cells are operating at 40 percent efficiency. A team from the University of New South Wales, Australia, recently set a world record, converting 40.4 percent of sunlight into electricity. Not to be outdone, a partnership between Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, (Europe’s largest solar energy research center), and two French companies developed a multi-junction solar cell that converts 46 percent of solar light into electricity. This was up from the 43 percent they achieved in late 2013!

Storing more with less

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013 collegiate teams. Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Solar is also getting smaller and lighter.

A prototype CPV system uses miniaturized gallium-arsenide photovoltaic cells (a silicon alternative), 3D-printed plastic lens arrays, and a movable focusing mechanism. It’s concentrated ambient solar energy 100 times over. Researchers claim this small system is light enough to fit on a residential rooftop and should be inexpensive to produce.

But Patterson doesn’t see all the new applications and types of solar panels getting into the market soon. Researchers believe it will take years for manufacturers to create an economy of scale for these, he said. And there could be big costs of getting the energy efficiency of solar panels up.

“It’s a cost benefit analysis,” Patterson said. The biggest driver in the increase in solar power, Patterson says, is utilities installing large scale solar systems. “A lot of utilities (see) this makes sense for them to do,” he said.

Infinite possibilities

Solar innovation is turning science fiction into reality. Researchers at University of Toronto invented a way to spray solar cells onto flexible surfaces using tiny light-sensitive materials. These can be sprayed or printed on an ultra-thin film that could be applied like cling wrap to any surface.

Solar windows – made with window coatings capable of generating electricity on glass and flexible plastics – are becoming possible as well.

And solar highways aren’t far fetched. An Oregon company has completed testing for a solar encased roadway that would generate energy, eliminate power poles and help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Other solar innovations include:

  • floating solar arrays over recycled wastewater – currently under development in Sonoma County, California
  • solar covered canals – this on-going project in India produces energy and helps save water. Visionaries are trying to bring this into California.
  • Solar covered trees tower over a Singapore waterfront amusement park. And a prototype harvests solar energy from its surroundings – indoors or outdoors – stores it, and turns it into electricity to power small digital devices.

  • Solar cars? Ford debuted a solar concept car at CES 2014 and a solar-powered Prius could be in the works.

So what does solar’s future look like?

Globally, the total photovoltaic capacity is forecast to reach 498 gigawatts (GW) in 2019. That’s 177 percent higher than 2014. The reasons are simple: continuing falling equipment prices, faster, cheaper installation and government subsidies. Add to this the explosive innovation throughout the industry and we’re likely to see solar in more forms and venues than we once thought imaginable. That’s an exciting prospect, any way you look at it.

Feature image courtesy of BASF

By Debra Atlas

As an environmental journalist, blogger, professional speaker and radio personality, Debra Atlas lights the way to let consumers discover exciting, useful green products that won’t make their checkbooks implode. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, she is a frequent contributor to environmentally focused publications and conferences.