of energy every year from the sun – this is more than 10,000 times the energy that we need1. With such abundant energy, the future of solar energy is most certainly bright! Even though we are now mostly familiar with solar panels, innovation is still thriving in the sector so that we can use in even better ways the sun’s energy. Who knows, perhaps in 20-30 years from now the way we retrieve solar energy will have completely changed!
For the moment, however, there are two widely recognized technologies converting solar energy into electricity: photovoltaic (PV) panels and concentrated solar power, also known as solar thermal power. According to experts, the expectation is that these two technologies will dominate the world of solar power until 20502. The reasons for this are many.
Solar panels on the rise
In the first place, solar panels which were once almost a luxury good given the high price of purchasing them, are now a lot more affordable. Between 2008 and 2013, the cost of solar panels fell by over 50 percent and it is estimated to fall further1. Solar panels are therefore now within reach of the average consumer and often government policies encourage people to make the upfront investment to purchase solar panels.
With solar panels on the verge of becoming mainstream, the International Energy Agency predicts that solar energy could count for up to 16% of the globe’s entire energy within the next 30 years 3.
But as solar power becomes more widely adopted, there are new businesses that emerge in response to new needs that are created, for example demand for space for solar panels or solutions for storing solar power. Researchers are also continually working to find better solutions for collecting solar power that will be more efficient, affordable and compact. Here are some examples of the work that is happening across the world to improve the way we harvest solar energy!
Innovations in solar energy harvesting
Aiming to bring the costs down to just a bit more than your Venti Starbucks Frappucino, printable solar panels aim to become the go-to solution for rooftop solar power. Researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia are testing solar cells that use electronic inks printed on plastic film. These panels would be less than one-tenth of a millimetre thick, they could be printed quickly in large quantities and all this for as little as $8 per square metre. This would be staggeringly cheaper compared to for example Tesla’s solar roof shingles, which cost around $235 per square meter4.
Improved efficiency of solar panels
Efficiency of solar panels is another aspect that experts are intent on improving. Since the 1950’s solar panels have improved in efficiency from about 6%5 to about 15%1. But there is still a lot of room for improvement: some scientists believe that efficiency can be improved by capturing the infrared spectrum of light from the sun. At the moment, this sunlight is not absorbed by solar panels and is therefore essentially waste. If it was made possible to utilise this energy, it could boost the energy efficiency of solar panels by 30%1.
Gains in efficiency can also be made by experimenting with new materials. Scientists have been working with biological material in efforts to make solar cells using them. This process involves the use of cyanobacteria to help power wireless devices. For the moment, the efficiency of these bio-solar cells is a lot lower compared to conventional photovoltaic cells but scientists hope that this can be improved particularly as these type of solar cells could be very useful to providing power in remote areas where replacing batteries might be more difficult1.
New materials do wonders
Other types of materials that are being looked as alternatives for producing solar panels include gallium arsenide, cadmium telluride, amorphous silicon as well as perovskites. Perovskite, coined the solar cell “wonder material”, is a material that holds a lot of promise. It is a cheaper product with the potential to be just as efficient — if not more-so — than traditional silicon cells. A perovskite material has a special type of crystal structure which can be described as a hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin halide-based material, as the light-harvesting active layer. While perovskite cells are in no way at a commercial stage, researchers believe that in five to ten years time we could be heading for a revolution in the solar energy market. This is because experts feel that by combining perovskite cells with silicon cells we could greatly optimise solar energy efficiency. Researchers are working on a new experimental technique that layers perovskite solar cells on top of silicon cells in order to maximize their total efficiency6.
In addition, better design could also be a solution to improving energy efficiency. IBM is investing in making individual PV cells smaller so that more of them can be placed into tighter spaces. IBM experts believe that by making solar panels smaller they could eventually pack ten times more photovoltaic cells into the same space1.
Floating solar farms
Given that photovoltaic panels also take up space, companies have also been thinking of innovative ways to placing photovoltaic panels. In addition to adapting them as roof tiles and to cover the facades of buildings, proposals are emerging to create floating photovoltaic panels or to integrate them in farmland. Indeed, some environmental organisations are in favour of integrating solar panels in farmland as this allows for a different use of the land which encourages biodiversity. Floating solar farms have also attracted a lot of attention particularly as some firms such as Ciel & Terre International have been working on making this a reality by setting up a large scale, floating, solar solution since 2011. One such farm is being already installed as a trial off the coast of the UK; similar projects might be attempted in India, France, and Japan1.
A lot of things are brewing in the world of solar energy, so much so that aside from predicting a reduction of costs and increase in efficiency, no one can accurately guess how the future of solar energy will look. One thing is certain, however: solar energy is considered one of the key solutions for bringing about a low carbon future.