Solar power technology has come a long way since silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells were developed in 1954. From its early use in NASA’s space satellites to today’s developments in solar powered aircraft, solar energy has always been used in innovative ways.
With the nation’s growing interest in solar energy, let’s explore the solar technology that people see most commonly: the solar panel. In addition to finding new uses for solar panels, researchers are enhancing their efficiency with new materials. That means solar panels are being constantly innovated.
New Materials for Solar are Creating a Bright Future
Most solar panels on the market today operate at about 17 percent efficiency: meaning they are able to effectively harness 17 percent of the sun’s rays that hit them. That may sound low, but it’s actually pretty good. Most plant’s photosynthesis processes are only 1.5 percent efficient, and standard car engines are only about 15 to 25 percent efficient at harnessing the energy of fossil fuel. And solar panels are rapidly catching up in the efficiency department. Important to also consider regarding solar and overall efficiencies, is that it takes a smaller fraction of the resources to create solar energy than it does for natural gas, coal, or nuclear.
The key to making solar panels more efficient may lie in changing what they’re made of. While most solar panels rely on silicon, a new generation of panels are testing out other materials. Perovskite solar cells, for example, are built from metals like organic/inorganic lead and halide tin. Perovskite cells have reached recorded levels of 22 percent efficiency—and researchers believe that perovskite cells could reach efficiency levels as high as 30 percent.
Thirty percent efficiency—double the efficiency of today’s standard solar panels—would mean half as many solar panels would be needed to produce the same amount of electricity, thereby cutting production, installation, and maintenance costs.
Along the lines of changing up the materials of a solar panel, some researchers are playing with the idea of changing how a solar panel works altogether. Instead of a solid plane of a semiconductor (usually silicon), they have created “hairy” solar panels: solar panels coated with light-absorbing nanowires. These nanowires may push solar panel efficiency up above thirty percent, extending efficiency beyond what traditional panels are capable of.
Another method of making solar more applicable to new uses is incorporating it into existing building materials, like window glass and roof tiles. Tesla’s roof tiles are the most famous example of this right now, but researchers are working fast to make transparent solar panels—functionally, solar-energy absorbing windows—a reality, too.
Researchers have recently pioneered an entirely clear window that absorbs the sun’s energy in non-visible wavelengths: ultraviolet and infrared. They collect energy from the sun without obstructing anyone’s view. And, as a bonus, they could keep a building cooler. While these windows are not yet as efficient as traditional solar panels, but their efficiency is expected to rise over the next few years. An especially encouraging aspect of transparent solar cells is that they could be fitted over anything that already has glass over it—from skyscrapers to cell phones.
Then there's a fascinating technology referred to as AirDrive. Developed by Sunfolding, AirDrive is a solar tracking system that helps move solar panels during a given day to help them operate even more efficiently. They operate with the power of moving air.
With each solar innovation, with each new, bright idea, the country and the world get one step closer to a cleaner, healthier, energy future.
Here at CleanChoice Energy, we support the growth and innovations of renewable energy technologies. As a green electricity supplier, we supply customers with 100% renewable energy sourced from wind and solar power. Learn how you can be a part of the renewable energy revolution, and switch to clean energy today!