What Lies Ahead for the Solar Industry?

The majority of people when they hear the words ‘solar power’ immediately think of solar panels on rooftops or large solar farms. It is easy to see why this is the case as until now traditional utility-scale and rooftop solar panels have dominated the solar market.

Scientists continue to look at ways of bringing the costs of solar photovoltaic panels down further and there are new technologies emerging all the time.

New and exciting solar panel technologies either in the pipeline or already on the market will transform the way we think about not just solar, but energy production in general. It is no longer necessary to use large swathes of land or rooftops for solar installations nor does solar need to look boring.

One relatively new technology which has experienced rapid growth since 2016 is floating solar farms.

Silicon panels are becoming cheaper and more efficient day-by-day. According to experts, if photovoltaic panels are placed on reservoirs or other bodies of water, they deliver even greater efficiency as well as a whole lot of other benefits.

Commonly known as ‘Floatovoltaics’ they are photovoltaic solar power systems designed to float on reservoirs, dams, and other water bodies. The first commercial 175 kWH floating panel system was installed in California in 2008 at the Far Niente winery in Napa Valley.

Capable of generating huge amounts of electricity these floating solar farms have the advantage of not taking up valuable land or real estate. The cost of installing them is less than for land based photovoltaic panels. Research has shown that floating solar panels produce up to 10% more power due to the cooling effect of water.

An additional benefit to producing clean solar power, floating solar farms can help with water management.  They do this by reducing the loss of water to evaporation as they restrict air circulation and block sunlight from the surface of the water. They also prevent the production of noxious algae and so lower water treatment costs. Furthermore, the water beneath keeps solar panels clean and minimises energy waste.

Building integrated photovoltaics is another technology that has been around for quite a while. As the name suggests, photovoltaic materials are used to replace conventional building materials in parts of the building envelope such as the roof, skylights, or facades. They can seamlessly blend into the architecture of the building making them an aesthetic choice.

However, being aesthetically pleasing is not the only consideration for solar buyers. Cost matters too. The good news is that the BIPV solar panel systems allow homeowners to save money on building materials and electric power costs. You can substitute BIPV for standard building materials and cut down on the additional cost of solar panel mounting systems.

Using photovoltaic PV glasses installed as building materials acts as an energy-generating device which works in the same way as conventional architectural glasses allowing natural light inside homes and offices.

BIPV technology provides the following benefits: increased energy efficiency; clean and free power output from the sun; decreased operation & maintenance costs; high thermal and sound insulation and a zero-carbon footprint.

For those who are concerned with the look of their roof, solar skins could be an option. Solar Skin is an aesthetic overlay that transforms the look of any solar panel. Solar Skin uses selective light filtration to simultaneously display a vibrant image and transmit sunlight to the underlying solar panel with minimal loss in efficiency. Solar skins are a novel PV technology that allow the integration of custom designs into solar panel systems.

The manufacturer of solar skins, Sistine is looking at how the efficiency of the technology can be increased by running tests at the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Solar thin-film skins are able to maintain high efficiency due to their selective light filtration advancements. The sunlight falling on solar skins is filtered to reach the solar cells beneath it and as a result, it simultaneously displays the custom image and provides solar energy.

Solar skin panels can be customised to display business logos, business advertisements to help with the branding of your business, or the imprinted custom images can exactly match your grassy lawns or rooftops of your homes.

If you are not happy with the appearance of traditional solar panels then solar skins may be ideal for you as they don’t use a racking system and so sit lower and hide metal components, giving them a sleek finish.

Another positive aspect of Sistine Solar is the ability to monitor the performance of your system 24 hours a day via your phone. They also provide you with alerts if there are any problems or solar energy outages and supply the right solutions in a timely manner.

The only downside of solar skin panels is their cost which is about 10% more than traditional panels.

Photovoltaic solar noise barriers (PVNB) are an ingenious way of integrating barrier systems with photovoltaic (PV) systems. The systems use solar cells to convert light energy directly into electricity in the usual way. However, they are top-mounted, retrofit designs that provide additional area to an existing noise barrier structure and are currently the most common PVNB approach.

Highway traffic noise in the US has been a concern for a long time and originally noise barriers were erected with the single aim of performing noise abatement functions, but the US has now seen the potential of merging noise barriers with sustainable power generation.

Not only can we produce solar power at a fixed location, but it is now also possible to do this while on the move through your own clothing. Solar radiation is after all available all over the planet. Solar cell fabric is embedded with photovoltaic cells which generate electricity when exposed to light. Traditional silicon based solar cells are expensive to manufacture, rigid and fragile. Although less efficient, thin-film cells and organic polymer-based cells can be produced quickly and cheaply. 

Much research is being done on developing solar fabrics, the idea being to include solar power in each fibre. Solar filaments could be embedded into your t-shirts, winter coats, or any other clothing to help you keep warmer or power your phone for example.

Researchers are attempting to combine solar fabric and solar panels in several areas: building facades that provide both shade and power; awnings that lighten up streetlights and curtains that eliminate power consumption from the grid.

One specific project that is being worked on involves the US army. Solar cell manufacturing companies are looking at creating solar-powered robotic tents.

Some of the best experts in the UK have got together to develop a spray coating technique. According to Sheffield University’s Professor David Lidzey, research carried out by his team has revealed that the way spray coated solar cells perform is the same as cells manufactured in more traditional methods.

He said:

“We found that the performance of our spray coated solar cells is the same as cells made with more traditional research methods, but which are impossible to scale in manufacturing.”

Unlike silicon solar cells, cells made from plastic require far less energy. However, as a material plastic cannot generate electricity as efficiently as silicon. Not only that, solar panels made from silicon have a life expectancy of 25 years. Scientists are currently working on increasing the energy conversion efficiency and the life cycle of plastic solar cells.

In yet another development, engineers from Yale University have discovered that a higher energy conversion efficiency can be achieved by combining carbon nanotube technology with traditional crystalline silicon materials. Thin films made from carbon nanotubes were layered onto a single-crystalline silicon base to create a new generation of efficient hybrid carbon/silicon solar cells.

As you can see the solar industry is continually evolving and with solar costs falling all the time it is likely that we will see a time when almost everything will be powered by free solar, the sun.