Promising Breakthroughs in Solar Power

There’s a sense of change in the solar industry. Much of it has to do with solar’s unprecedented popularity and a recognition of its permanence around the energy industry. Yet looking forward, more of this growing feeling of flux is about approaching a threshold, a breakthrough that will send solar energy full-force into the energy mainstream.

residential solar power breakthroughPhoto Credit: Jeremy Levine Design

In the meantime, researchers, developers, manufacturers and start-ups of all kinds are racing to signal that breakthrough. There is no bigger buzzword than Solar right now. The race for grid parity is running fast. Everybody wants to be the first to cross that threshold, to find that holy grail. It’s at the point now that project claims are getting near hyperbolic and the simple announcement of a plan for one project is treated with as much fanfare as the final ribbon-cutting for another.

With literally hundreds of solar projects lined up for approval, all with their own (similar) claims to fame, it’s hard to tell which ones, if any, could truly change the face of solar and which are merely adding some given total to our national solar power capacity.

First of all, any increase in our production of solar energy is a necessity and a big plus for our energy security. The great challenge for solar and other renewables is to speed up that production and bring costs down enough to create an industry that is self-sustaining and independent of government subsidies. So far, no single technology can claim any such achievement.

Many innovations, such as dye-sensitized solar cells and nanotechnology, show promise but are still too much in development for even the most hyperbolic enthusiasts to make any substantial prediction. Meanwhile, the solar industry continues to form, to change in its own ways as it climbs that hill, atop which awaits grid parity and a solidified clean energy future. Here are a few innovations, be they technological, design-based, or logistic, which I think are likely to change the solar industry in a real way.

Solar Trees

Solar tree has become a very general term, meaning anything from solar cells that actually look like trees to solar-paneled carports. My innovation of choice is the latter. Solar carports represent a real multifunctional opportunity for the solar industry. So much of our land is covered with parking lots. The electric car of the future will need a place to plug in, shade is good for both humans and cars, and parking lots are very close to existing transmission lines. And solar carports will save up to thousands of acres of pristine, remote land where large solar plants will otherwise go. The only thing that worries me is that these carports (as seen at Google Headquarters) haven’t already taken over our paved parkways.

solar-carport.jpgPhoto Credit: The National Guard

The Stirling Engine

Concentrated solar power (CSP) faces a rather amazing amount of opposition. In the rush to deploy large-scale solar power, many developers gave little thought to effects on local landscape and habitat from the building of massive solar power plants on pristine public land. Not to mention preexisting water shortages for those prime CSP desert regions.


Stirling engine

, an old technology adapted for new conditions, uses much less water than typical solar thermal collectors, takes up much less space and is modular so that installation costs can be kept low, along with its impact on local environment. A smaller footprint also means that Stirling solar power plants could be located closer to existing transmission lines. Stirling engine-based solar systems could also be cheaply mass-produced using existing auto manufacturing infrastructure.

Organic Solar Cells and Biomimetics

The prospect of cheap, effective solar cells could hinge on the success of organic solar cells. These include dye-sensitized cells (DSCs) and are fascinating because they could use readily available materials for a semiconductor. DSC researchers are using blackberries and similar fruit to simulate photosynthesis and create electricity out of very common, very cheap items. As of now, conversion efficiencies are low and durability is lacking, but the promise of super thin, flexible and effective organic solar cells is there and worthy of mention.

Space-Based Solar Power

If they can do the math (and get it right) on this one, then there’s no stopping solar energy. The potential for space-based solar power is so massive that we can’t even wrap our heads around it.

Posted on September 1 in Solar Products by .

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