For decades consumers and corporations around the world have been searching for cleaner energy solutions to fossil fueled power. There are many technologies that have been competing to replace coal, natural gas and nuclear power. You don’t have to drive far through the western states to see large scale wind turbine generators. Geo-thermal and tidal action facilities have been constructed but are limited by geography and cost. One technology has unlimited potential though, and that is solar. In the southwest there are a number of large scale solar generation facilities. Advances in solar technology have made it more competitive and a popular choice for both large scale and small scale power generation.
In the Phoenix area you don’t have to look hard to see the impact of residential solar power. Many homes have elected to install solar panels on their roofs, and when done properly it can reduce summer power bills from $500 per month for a median sized home down to less than $100. Many homeowners have balked at the cost and aesthetics of roof mounted solar panels though. A recent start-up company thinks it may have a solution though. Textile designer Marianne Fairbanks and chemist Trisha Andrew have teamed to up make a fabric based solar technology. This technology is in the early stages but has potential to be much more aesthetically pleasing, with your homes curtains and outdoor patio covers being used to generate power.
A big part to the advancement of solar panels is the improvements in efficiency that are being made. When solar panels first started being produced in the 1960’s Hoffman Electric was achieving approximately 14% efficiency. That efficiency wasn’t drastically improved on until just recently. In 2012 Solar Frontier was able to achieve 17.8% efficiency, and in 2015 First solar broke over the 18% line. The most efficient panels today, outside the lab, are producing around 23%. There is however a new technology that has many in the industry excited. Researchers at George Washington University are developing a concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) panel that can harness a broad spectrum of light. Current panels only harness a narrow band of light energy, but the new panels utilize a stacked material that is only about a square millimeter that lets light pass through to materials underneath that gather light at various spectrums. The technology has been tested and shown to produce power at an astonishing efficiency of 46%. The technology is still in the developmental stage but has many in the industry excited at the incredible potential it holds.
The other thing that limits solar panel is the storage aspect. Power is generated by solar panels and must either be used, transferred to the power grid or stored. Tesla received a lot of fanfare with their Powerwall battery system for homes. During the daytime the solar panels can charge the Powerwall battery and then utilize that energy at night. This technology comes at a cost though, installed you are looking at around $7-8,000 per battery, which will only cover a small apartment. Larger homes would need 2-3 to get through the night, or a 24-hour power outage. Another storage option being developed is solar thermal fuel (SFT). Dr. David Zhitomirsky, a professor at MIT has been experimenting with solid state energy storage. The problem with energy storage is heat is always dissipated over time, but when you store heat in the form of a chemical change it can be stored in a stable, long lasting environment. The energy can then be released, when needed, by triggering with heat, light or electricity. Dr Zhitomirsky states “These materials could find a lot of use in rural areas and in third world countries, but also in urban first world environment where they can be integrated into clothing, for example.”
When combined, these technologies have some very exciting potential in the not to distant future. The way a typical home generates, stores and uses power will be much different in the decades to come. Our freedom from fossil fuels may finally be coming in the next generation.