CosSolar panels have come a long way since the photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1839. Recent years have brought exciting solar innovations that improve efficiency and affordability. More people are installing solar systems on their homes or businesses, empowering more communities to also become self-reliant.
The future of renewable energy doesn’t stop here. Researchers and innovators continue to improve performance and find new ways to utilize solar panels. This is something everyone should pay attention to because it could completely change the way we power our homes and our lives!
Perovskite Solar Cells Poised to Overtake Silicon
Silicon is currently the dominant material in solar panel manufacturing, with approximately 95% of the market share. Despite its current popularity, better options may become available. Silicone harnesses light from the red and infrared end of the spectrum, and it must be bulky enough to absorb and convert photons. The most efficient examples of silicone panels are only 23% or less efficient, falling 6% or more short of the 29% theoretical maximum for a layer of silicon.
Researchers at the lab at Oxford PV decided to try something different. They arranged a test using two cells stacked on top of one another. The bottom made of silicon, and the top one crafted from perovskite. Perovskite contains a crystal structure that’s good at transforming light into electricity.
A pair of connected probes measured performance. The cell managed to produce a 28% efficiency rate – a new record for a perovskite and silicon pairing. An independent test confirmed the results.
Perovskite could be the next step in solar panel efficiency. It utilizes more of the light spectrum. A perovskite and silicon combination can convert more photos into electrons than either material can deliver alone. One layer of perovskite can theoretically achieve 33% efficiency or 43% when used in tandem with silicon. Oxford PV plans to bring this new creation to the renewable energy market by the end of 2020.
Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Panels Make Solar Even More Affordable
Cost and efficiency are important. The lower the price of a new system, the more accessible it will be to more people around the country. Tax credits help, but eventually, many programs are phased out. Meanwhile, researchers continue to look for ways to make solar panels more affordable to manufacture and use.
Tom Fiducia, a Ph.D. research student at the Loughborough University’s Center for Renewable Energy Systems Technology (CREST), may have helped solve the puzzle. With the backing of an international team of researchers, Fiducia has discovered why selenium increases efficiency – a process that was not understood until now.
Fiducia and his fellow researchers published their paper, “Understanding the role of selenium in defect passivation for highly efficient selenium-alloyed cadmium telluride solar cells,” in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Energy. Energy increases because electrons generated when sunlight contacts a solar panel are less likely to be trapped and lost. This produces more usable power. Fiducia unraveled the mystery by measuring the amount of light emitted from the selenium panels. The material wasn’t evenly distributed, allowing the researchers to compare areas with selenium to those containing little or none.
According to Fiducia, “We mapped the luminescence emitted from a selenium-containing solar cell at a resolution of around 1/10,000th of a millimeter and compared it to a similarly high-resolution map of the selenium concentration taken on the exact same area of the cell.”
The results were undeniable, according to Fiducia: “It is strikingly obvious when you see the data that selenium-rich regions luminesce much more brightly than the pure cadmium telluride, and the effect is remarkably strong.”
Others acknowledged the importance of this discovery. Professor of Photovoltaics Michael Walls is overseeing Fiducia’s research. He explained that knowing how selenium improves efficiency will allow for further solar panel innovations and power output improvements. He praised the team’s work as “a great example of an international team working together contributing their expertise and facilities and developing a fundamental understanding of how devices really work.”
Sun and Wind Combine with New ACCIONA Trials
Many people hear the term “sustainable energy,” and they think of solar or wind power. The two are considered separate options. But some innovators are experimenting with a combination for a more reliable, lower-cost renewable energy source.
ACCIONA is a global company operating in over 40 countries. Its goal is to implement sustainable strategies throughout the world. The organization wants to lead the movement towards a low-carbon economy. Their most recent efforts include a new trial in southeastern Spain.
By installing flexible PV panels on a turbine, researchers measured the efficiency of the structure’s electrical components. A turbine requires power to operate, even when it is not producing energy. This power is traditionally supplied the through the grid.
Researchers with ACCIONA believe that ultra-thin solar modules could help reduce the turbine’s energy consumption during low wind periods. Panels are connected to a pair of inverters that convert direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC). This feeds the electrical equipment running the turbine. In turn, this will also reduce the deficit.
At the company’s 36-megawatt Breña wind farm, the AW77/1500 turbine has 120 PV panels. ACCIONA’s director of energy innovation Belén Linares explained that “The Breña hybridization project is an optimization of the use of space for renewable production and will allow us to test the efficiency of organic photovoltaics – a technology that we believe has one of the greatest curves of improving technological efficiency.”
Solar Power Could Mean Money for Small Farms
Byron Kominek owns a small farm in Boulder, Colorado. He’s a third-generation farmer who understands the struggles people like him often face. His grandfather purchased the 24-acre property in 1972. When times were good, the family farm did well. However, the profit margin on alfalfa, hay, and other crops has seen a steady decline. The farm lost money, which motivated Kominek to look for ways to compensate.
He decided to add a new kind of crop to his farm – one that would harvest sunshine. He plans to install solar panels that will be co-located with agricultural production. Kominek’s farm, called “Jack’s Solar Garden,” is one of the first of its kind. Known as “agrivoltaics,” Kominek’s design is a revolutionary technique.
Colorado’s agriculture industry makes up around 8% of the state’s total energy consumption. Solar power pumps groundwater and irrigates the five million acres of farmland located in the Imperial and Central Valleys. Solar panels could have a significant impact on farmer’s livelihoods in the long run.
The process wasn’t as easy as setting up a few solar panels. Kominek had to learn about the challenges he faced. He had to work with local officials to update land use codes to permit a solar garden.
As long as all goes to plan, Kominek could install 3,000 solar panels in rows positioned 17 feet apart that track the sun all day long. His goal is to generate 1.2 megawatts of power, which is enough to supply as many as 300 homes. Crops grow under the energy-producing solar panel array.
Kominek is also taking other steps to help the environment and make the most of his property. He plans to grow an apple orchard and keep bees. He has partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as well as Colorado State University and Arizona University.
From new technology to new applications, solar panel innovations are changing the way we live and work.
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