where research and development is thriving! Innovative ideas for minimising the use of scarce resources and optimising the use of renewable ones as well as new business models and approaches are proliferating. Considering the technological innovations of biodegradable plastics or lease society models, it may appear that innovations such as photovoltaic panels that have been around since the mid-1950’s are old news. But this could not be further from the truth!
Solar power technology has advanced a great deal over the last few years but it seems we have not exhausted its full potential. Even though it was the space industry that was an early adopter of solar technology – and began using it in the 1960s to provide power aboard spacecraft¹ – it seems that there are many exciting projects in the works across the world that are worth highlighting!
An ambitious Japanese project
One exciting project, that builds on the legacy of space as a first testing ground for solar, is being pursued in Japan. In 2014, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, Japan unveiled its largest solar power plant to date, built offshore on reclaimed land jutting into the Kagoshima Bay. The plant generates enough electricity to power roughly 22,000 homes². This plant is essentially an offshore solar plant; the idea is similar to SUNdy, a solar island, proposed by Norwegian company DNV in Singapore. The island links 4,200 solar panels into a stadium-size hexagonal array that floats on the ocean’s surface².
But the plans for the ultimate offshore power plant were developed by Japanese company Shimizu Corporation: its engineers are developing proposing to install solar panels around the Moon’s equator that would transmit energy to Earth via microwaves and lasers. This project could provide up to 13,000 terawatts of electricity per year—more than three times what the U.S. produces. And no one would need to worry about cloudy days²!
Harnessing bio-solar power
Researchers are also looking at applying the principles of solar power to non-silicone panels using bacteria power. Microbial fuel cells involve bacteria breaking down organic material and creating an electric current. But Binghamton University researchers have assembled the first bio-solar panel capable of producing continual electricity. They connected nine biological-solar (bio-solar) cells into a bio-solar panel which generate the most wattage of any existing small-scale bio-solar cells – 5.59 microwatts³,⁴.
While this technology is thousands of times less efficient than traditional solar photovoltaics, this discovery paves the way for using bio-solar panels as a permanent power source for supplying long-term power in the future.
Energy harvesting trees
Finnish researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre have looked into incorporating solar power in a different medium using the power of 3D printing technologies. They have developed prototypes for what they are calling “energy harvesting trees”. These are tiny leaves that can generate and store solar energy which in turn can be used to power small appliances and mobile devices. They can be placed indoors and outdoors; the leaves can also harvest kinetic energy from wind and temperature changes in the surrounding environment¹. What is great about those leaves is that they are actually flexible organic solar cells, printed using well-established mass-production techniques. Each leaf has a separate power converter, creating a multi-converter system that makes it possible to collect energy from a variety of sources such as solar, wind and heat temperature¹.
The energy efficiency race
Other researchers are investing in making solar power technologies even more efficient. One recent discovery that could be a game changer is a new material: Imperial College University in London believe they have discovered a new material—gallium arsenide—which could make solar photovoltaic systems nearly three times more efficient than existing products on the market¹. This would revolutionise the solar power market! These solar cells are called “triple junction cells” and they are much more efficient because they can optimize sunlight capture.
What is also great about solar energy is its versatility and range of applications. So photovoltaic panels are moving beyond our roofs. For example, you can find photovoltaic cells covering the 426-square meter facade of an apartment in Berlin, Germany. The cells have replaced the conventional facade slabs and as such produce around 25.000 kWh of solar-generated electricity a year, which is fed into the public grid and then set off against the energy consumption of the twin towers⁷. Imagine how much solar power would be generated if this was replicated across all our apartment buildings?
Solar power expanding into our daily life
But there are more areas where solar energy is being introduced. In the Netherlands, project SolaRoad, the world’s first “solar road” has surpassed expectations and has generated about 3,000 kWh of power, enough to provide a single-person household with electricity for a year. SolaRoad is a bike path made from solar panels, and it is a prototype project testing the feasibility of various proposals for smart highways. Considering that it is only a 230-feet bike path, the potential for this technology could be pretty great⁷. But solar technology is now also in the air: currently, the Solar Impulse 2, the first solar airplane able to sustain flight at night with a pilot on board, is making its historic round-the-world trip powered only by the sun!
And it seems that solar power is now also portable. The solar plug is an innovation that makes solar power something we can use during our day. The idea is simple but very smart: the outlet has one side with solar panels to absorb radiation and store electricity and a suction cup to be able to stick it to any glass, at home or a car window for example. On the other side, it is a standard outlet. Once charged, you can carry it in your pocket in order to connect it at any time – a portable plug with its own energy⁷.
So, it seems that not even sky – or space- is the limit for solar power technology! Today’s discoveries and inventions are only one chapter in the story of solar power and many more exciting projects are certainly ahead of us.