If you’re starting to research solar energy systems for your home, you’re probably aware that the technology’s constantly improving; untold numbers of geniuses toil in laboratories to improve system performance and reduce costs.
In the course of our reading, we’ve run across some cutting-edge products that will almost certainly contribute to better performance and lower costs in tomorrow’s solar energy systems. What they have in common, for now, is that they’re not currently available in the U.S. But with at least some of them already popular in Europe, that condition is unlikely to last.
No Need to Choose: One Roof Heats Water, Generates Power
UK-based SolarCentury has been garnering raves (and awards) all over Europe for its Complete Solar Roof product. Using the solar-shingles principle, SolarCentury makes two different types of roof tiles: the C21e, which generates electricity, and the C21t, which heats water. In the Complete Solar Roof, the two combine for dual functionality in the same system, heating water and generating electricity.
Not only do the tiles blend in unobtrusively with the home’s conventional shingles, they can be configured to create an energy system that’s optimized for the needs of the residents. One family, for example, may be heavy hot-water users, while another needs a steady supply of electricity to power all the gadgets; a different mix of shingles gets each what they need.
While the Complete Solar Roof is taking Europe by storm, it’s currently not available in the U.S. However, SolarCentury, which recently received some U.S. investment, promises to keep us informed.
Nanotechnology on the Roof
Many factors contribute to the relatively high price tag of today’s solar technology. Much of it, for example, still depends on fragile, heavy materials including glass for many components; besides requiring more highly skilled labor, these materials also carry a significantly higher price tag because of shipping and handling costs. Newer, more flexible materials have alleviated some of this problem, as with shingles and roll products, but some manufacturing costs remain high.
That may be about to change, thanks to SolarPly from San Jose-based Nanosolar. Taking advantage of molecular-level manufacturing capabilities and other recent breakthroughs, the company has been able to drastically improve performance/cost ratios, and also solve persistent problems that have plagued bulkier systems.
SolarPly is a thin film, about the thickness of aluminum foil. It’s lightweight, it can be bent or cut to fit any shape - and it generates solar electric power. Early reviews predict a rapid drop in the price of installing a solar energy system once Nanosolar’s manufacturing catches up with demand - their site currently says the next year’s entire production is already spoken for.
It’s not just nanotechnology - scientists are exploring many options to expand the capability of existing materials and, when that doesn’t work, come up with new ones. When current approaches to generating energy seem woefully inefficient, do something different.
That seems to be the spirit driving Atlanta engineer Lonnie Johnson, who’s currently building a prototype of his latest invention: a fuel-cell-like engine that generates electricity from heat, including solar. Experts are weighing in with various opinions as to whether this gizmo would truly halve the cost of solar energy system, but naysayers are reminded that inventor Johnson already has one mega success to his credit: the SuperSoaker squirt gun.