Solar power is in a constant state of innovation, with new advances in solar panel technology continuously announced. In the past year alone, there have been milestones in solar efficiency, solar energy storage, wearable solar tech, and solar design tech.
There are two main types of solar technology: photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP). Solar PV technology captures sunlight to generate electric power, and CSP harnesses the sun’s heat and uses it to generate thermal energy that powers heaters or turbines. With these two forms of solar energy comes a wide range of opportunities for technical innovation. Here are some of the latest emerging/further developing solar technologies:
Solar skin design
One major barrier for the solar industry is the fact that a high percentage of homeowners consider solar panels to be an unsightly home addition. Luckily, one new venture has a solution. Sistine Solar, a Boston-based design firm, is making significant strides with the concept of aesthetic enhancement that allows solar panels to have a customized look. The MIT startup has created a “solar skin” product that makes it possible for solar panels to match the appearance of a roof without interfering with panel efficiency or production.
Last summer paved the way for tests of an exciting new PV technology – solar-powered roads. The sidewalks along Route 66, America’s historic interstate highway, were chosen as the testing location for solar-powered pavement tech. These roadways are heralded for their ability to generate clean energy, but they also include LED bulbs that can light roads at night and have the thermal heating capacity to melt snow during winter weather. The next stop following sidewalk tests is to install these roadways on designated segments of Route 66.
Though wearable solar devices are nothing new (solar-powered watches and other gadgets have been on the market for several years), the past few years saw an innovation in solar textiles: small solar panels can now be stitched into the fabric of clothing. The wearable solar products of the past, like solar-powered watches, have typically been made with hard plastic material. This new textile concept makes it possible for solar to expand into home products like window curtains and dynamic consumer cleantech like heated car seats. This emerging solar technology is credited to textile designer Marianne Fairbanks and chemist Trisha Andrew.
Solar batteries: innovation in solar storage
The concepts of off-grid solar and solar plus storage have gained popularity in U.S. markets, and solar manufacturers have taken notice. The industry-famous Tesla Powerwall, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery product launched in 2015, continues to lead the pack with regard to market share and brand recognition for solar batteries. Tesla offers two storage products, the Powerwall 2.0 for residential use and the Powerpack for commercial use. Solar storage is still a fairly expensive product, but a surge in demand from solar shoppers is expected to bring significantly more efficient and affordable batteries to the market.
Advances in solar energy: the latest solar technology breakthroughs
Solar tracking mounts
As solar starts to reach mainstream status, more and more homeowners are considering solar – even those who have roofs that are less than ideal for panels. Because of this expansion, ground-mounted solar is becoming a viable, clean energy option, thanks in part to tracking mount technology.
Trackers allow solar panels to maximize electricity production by following the sun as it moves across the sky. PV tracking systems tilt and shift the angle of a solar array as the day goes by to best match the location of the sun. Though this panel add-on has been available for some time, solar manufacturers are truly embracing the technology. GTM Research recently unveiled a recent report that shows a significant upward trend in the popularity of tracking systems. GTM projects a 254 percent year-over-year increase for the PV tracking market this year. The report stated that by 2021, almost half of all ground mount arrays would include solar tracking capability.
Advances in solar panel efficiency
The past few years in the solar industry have been a race to the top in terms of solar cell efficiency, and recent times have been no different. Many achievements by various panel manufacturers have brought us to higher and higher maximum efficiencies each year.
The solar cell types used in mainstream markets could also see major improvements in cost per watt – a metric that compares relative affordability of solar panels. Thanks to Swiss and American researchers, Perovskite solar cells (as compared to the silicon cells that are used predominantly today) have seen some major breakthroughs in the past two years. The result will be a solar panel that can generate 20+ percent efficiency while still being one of the lowest cost options on the market.
Of course, the work doesn’t stop there, as MIT researchers reminded us in May when they announced new technology that could double the efficiency of solar cells overall. The MIT lab team revealed a new tech concept that captures and utilizes the waste heat that is usually emitted by solar panels. This typically released and non-harnessed thermal energy is a setback and opportunity for improvement for solar technology, which means this innovation could help the cost of solar to plummet even further.
Solar thermal fuel (STF)
There is little debate when it comes to solar power’s ultimate drawback as an energy source: storage. While the past decade has seen an incredible growth of the PV industry, the path forward for solar involves an affordable storage solution that will make solar a truly sustainable energy source 24 hours a day. Though solar batteries (mentioned above) are a storage option, they are still not economically viable for the mainstream. Luckily, MIT Professor Jeffrey Grossman and his team of researchers have spent much of the past few years developing alternative storage solutions for solar; the best one appears to be solar thermal fuels (STFs).
The technology and process behind STFs is comparable to a typical battery. The STF can harness sunlight energy, store it as a charge and then release it when prompted. The issue with storing solar as heat, according to the team’s findings, is that heat will always dissipate over time, which is why it is crucial that solar storage tech can charge energy rather than capture heat. For Grossman’s team, the latest STF prototype is simply an improvement of a prior design that allowed solar power to be stored as a liquid substance. Recent years saw the invention of a solid-state STF application that could be implemented in windows, windshields, car tops, and other surfaces exposed to sunlight.
Solar water purifiers
Stanford University researchers collaborated with the Department of Energy this year to develop a new solar device that can purify water when exposed to sunlight. The minuscule tablet (roughly half the size of a postage stamp) is not the first solar device to filter water, but it has made significant strides in efficiency compared to past inventions. Prior purifier designs needed to harness UV rays and required hours of sun exposure to purify water fully. By contrast, Stanford’s new product can access visible light and only requires a few minutes to produce reliable drinking water. As the technology behind solar purifiers continues to improve, expect these chiclet-sized devices to come to market with hikers and campers in mind as an ideal consumer audience.
What new solar technology means for homeowners
For those considering solar panels systems, this long list of solar panel technology innovations from recent years is nothing but good news. Efficiency upgrades, storage improvements and equipment capabilities all contribute to more efficient power output for solar panels and lower costs for systems.