We explore how the future of solar power looks in 2021 and the ways solar technology might be changing not just your life, but the world as we know it.
Thoughts about renewable energies trend to bring to mind ideas about hydro power or wind energy. Indeed, these have been the most popular in recent years due to hydro power’s low $ per kilowatt hour (kWh) and wind energy’s fast growing market.
There is one type of renewable energy however that can sometimes get forgotten, in part thanks to many years of misinformation and common myths about the technology. Using solar power as a source of energy can actually prove more versatile and offers the potential to get a higher return on your investment than wind power or hydro power.
After all, the sun is the source that powers our great planet, it seems logical that we harness this giant natural battery.
It is understood that 430 quintillion Joules of energy from the sun reaches planet Earth’s surface every hour- that’s 430, 000,000,000,000,000,000 in numbers! As a point of reference, the combined energy human beings use in one year is currently at around 410 quintillion Joules.
That’s a lot of wasted energy.
Whilst it is true that hydro power and wind power cater to a wide range of energy needs currently, in terms of potential, the future of solar power could change the world in grander ways.
How does Solar Power Work?
Solar panels convert solar energy from the sun into useable electricity and it is the solar cells, or photovoltaic (PV) cells that are responsible for the conversion.
Full solar systems can range from large plots covered in solar panels in the middle of nowhere such as a desert , to smaller systems like the ones you’d see on a caravan or a shed and solar technology has been used for some years now in the most unusual of place, such as public rubbish bins, electronic road signs and even the common calculator!
But how does solar power work?
When sunlight hits the solar cells, it is attracted to the cell’s anti-reflective dark coating. However solar power technology is unable to harness all the energy that hits it, which is the biggest limitation of solar power currently – one that the industry is working to resolve.
Penetrating the solar cell, sunlight gets absorbed by layers of semiconductor material – ‘semi’ coming from it not being as a good a conductor as materials like metal, but still being able to conduct electricity better than an insulator.
When exposed to light, these layers transfer the energy to negatively charged particles, known as electrons. The extra energy helps the electrons to flow through the material as an electrical current, which is then extracted through conductive contacts, such as the metal grids often see on solar cells, allowing it to be used as consumable energy.
Efficiency of a solar cell is measured by its electrical output against the energy from the light shining on it, which is an indicator of how effective it is at converting solar energy into an electrical current. However, the actual amount of electricity produced by a solar system largely depends on-
- The light source – intensity, distance, duration
- Performance characteristics of the cell itself – materials, quality, new technologies
- Size of the system – how many solar cells
- Obstructions – cloud, dirt or dust
The future of solar power technological development will be looking to address these limitations and increase efficiency.
Solar Vs. Other Renewables
Solar stands apart from other renewable energies due to its immense versatility in all sorts of applications, big or small. There’s a very good reason the solar cell calculator took hold over water or wind powered calculators!
Hydro power and wind power are both highly sensitive to geographical and climate changes – hydro power being good for supplying near-by power grids and wind power depends on locations where the wind blows consistently and evenly. These technologies can also have a negative impact on the landscape or intervention in nature, which often results in protests from local communities and can heavily disrupt habitats of local wildlife.
It’s also much harder, if not impossible in some cases, to scale these technologies down for applications that require portability, such as in devices or on vehicles.
In comparison, solar energy caters to a much wider range of applications. Since the sun is accessible pretty much anywhere outside, even in areas people tend not to live, solar systems can be far more flexible about where they are located compared to wind or hydro power. What’s more is that solar power is generally considered to be the least invasive source of energy when it comes to the landscape and local nature and is said to actually have a “positive, indirect effect on the environment when solar energy replaces or reduces the use of other energy sources that have larger effects on the environment.” (U.S. Energy Information Administration)
With such capabilities, it may not be out of the realms of possibility to see for example, cars powered by the sun in the future of solar power technology. Or perhaps camping and hiking will be made easier with heating, lighting and general power produced through solar cells integrated into tents or clothing perhaps.
These kinds of developments aren’t feasible with hydro or wind power, where as the future of solar power is almost limitless.
The cost of solar cells has never been cheaper. Data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows that the global average price of PV modules, measured at US$ per Watt has decreased from 4.88 $/W in the year 2000 to 0.41 $/W in 2018 then 0.38 $/W in 2019.
As these costs continue to fall over the years, new and exciting applications for solar power will become possible. Logically, this will increase the technology’s commercial viability, encouraging more research and development, advancing the technology even more.
However, the exciting future of solar power will be built on the innovations of today.
Organic Solar Cells
Most solar cells on the market today are made with silicon, being the best material at converting solar radiation into electricity. Under standard test conditions, standard produced solar cells currently achieve efficiency levels ranging from 18%–22% .
Traditionally, carbon-based solar cells have been considered as inefficient, until fairly recently with the emergence of organic solar cells. Despite being made out of plastic and carbon, organic solar cells are catching up on the market, competing with efficiencies of up to 25%.
Not only this, but organic solar cells are flexible, don’t weigh much and are easy to transport or handle, meaning they can be used in a wide range of applications, such as moving devices or machines, textiles, accessories and jewelry and even windows.
Biogenic Solar Cells
It’s not just in physics and chemistry that solar has been making ground.
Solar cells from living organisms are now receiving attention from researchers and although this approach is still in its infancy, it could be a huge technological advancement over existing solutions for specific applications when it reaches maturity.
A biogenic solar cell converts dim and bright light into energy at equal efficiency by using genetically engineered E. coli that produces a lot a natural dye called lycopene, which is found in most red produce such as tomatoes or grapefruit and its sensitivity to light makes it perfect for harvesting it. The genetically modified E. coli is coated in a material that acts as a semiconductor and the whole cell can be produced “economically and sustainably, and, with sufficient optimization, could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells.”
It’s safe to say that for the moment, biogenic solar cells aren’t the future of solar power, however this special technology could be instrumental in the emergence of specialist low light solar power technologies, bringing solar power to areas locations that don’t get a lot of light.
Ultra-thin Solar Panels
Traditionally, solar panels are understood to be these big, dark coloured rectangles that obstruct the surfaces they are on and produce a blinding refection at the wrong angle.
This, unfortunately, is one of the solar power myths that still grips the market today.
The truth couldn’t be further from the myth, with MIT researchers having recently created a solar cell so thin and lightweight that it doesn’t even pop a soap bubble under its weight.
Although it may take many years before this technology can be applied to a commercial application, it’s not difficult see how this approach could see solar energy applied to clothing, a future generation of mobile device or even vehicles. Solar cells this thin will most certainly revolutionise the industry as well as having the potential to reframe the way we think about power for buildings and other structures, possibly allowing entire buildings to be covered with an ultra-thin solar cell facade.
As one of the most interesting developments, this one is certainly a tall order when it comes to changing global infrastructure.
But if done right, it’s one that could change everything.
The idea of having a vehicle follow a power supply isn’t particularly new. Indeed, electric trams even predate the motorcar by 2 years. We all know that the combustion engine won popularity for personal vehicles over electric powered engines in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But, over 100 years later, the electric vehicle is now on the rise, meaning discussions about ‘Solar Highways’ are beginning to be taken seriously.
One of the biggest issues we face when it comes to the mass adoption of electric vehicles is the travel distance. For some commuters, it’s simply not practical to transition to electric until there is better charging technology and provisions for drivers to recharge, or, until travel distance is drastically improved.
It currently takes a lot longer to charge an electric vehicle than it does to refuel a petrol vehicle, and the infrastructure we see around us today is highly geared to the motorcar, meaning more development is needed to accommodate a whole society of electric vehicle drivers.
This is where solar roads could come in.
In most countries, the road network spans the length and width of their borders – vast miles of tarmac or asphalt just sitting there, eroding slowly whilst absorbing the sun’s rays and doing nothing with them.
Solar roads are just what they sound like – roads made out of solar panels. In principal, they passively generate electricity and could offer very handy and frequent charging points for many electric vehicle drivers.
However, with this technology comes other potential benefits too, such as the opportunity to make roads out of hardened materials, reducing the need for maintenance and repairs. It also offers the chance to upgrade the road system using LEDs or other high-tech indicators to warn drivers of hazards or other road safety information.
Whilst solar roads have been – and are currently being trialed all over the world with varying degrees of success, it’s a comforting thought that as the future of solar power unfolds, barriers and limitations to the technology will be overcome, literally paving the way for grand and ambitious projects such as solar roads and walk ways.
Transparent Solar Cells
Transparent solar cells are a very exciting development in the solar market as they open up applications not possible with the traditional dark, opaque solar cells.
Intuitively, you would be forgiven for wondering how, if light is passing through the medium, can it be utilised for power?
This is where the innovation comes in. Transparent solar cells are changing the way solar cells absorb light.
These solar cells selectively harness a specific part of the light spectrum that can’t be seen with the human eye, still allowing normal light to pass through. To allow this, researchers have developed the transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which is made up of organic salts that absorb specific UV and infrared wavelengths. These wavelengths are then directed to the edge of the cell, where a thin and discreet solar cell strip converts it to electricity.
Researchers estimate that cells with TLSC should be able to work at an efficiency level of about 10%, meaning it can process 10% of the sunlight that hits it. Whilst this may sound low, one must consider the increased applications that could be possible with this technology. On a large scale, for example, if every window in every home or office had transparent solar panels, this would generate a lot of energy we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Moreover, as mass production begins and such applications become implemented and commercialised, the technology will inevitably benefit from economies of scale and other cost savings that can be found from mass production. This could potentially allow it to be applied to commercial and industrial applications that could see it used in mobile devices, vehicles and other amazing applications.
Could the future of solar power be transparent?
How bright is the future of solar power?
There are still so many exciting innovations that lie is ahead in the future of solar power, with so much room for improvement on top of what is already a growing market.
Soon, some, if not all the innovations discussed will cease to be the future and will go on to redefine our relationship with energy.
Whether it’s transparent, light-weight or something else entirely, it’s fairly likely that the future of solar power is very bright indeed.
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