November 14, 2014

The next big thing in solar tech: Solar panels?

The solar industry is constantly looking for the next big thing. Every company wants to be the first to innovate and ensure that, as the alternative energy market grows in size and scope, they aren’t left behind. The trouble is many of these innovations in solar technology are typically neither cost-effective nor ready for commercial consumption.

Though the news and the web are constantly buzzing about new solar technologies, such as solar windows and roadways, will these innovations become readily available to consumers in our lifetimes? Let’s explore some of these fresh takes on solar and their expected public availabilities…

Solar Windows:

In September, Michigan State University researchers and assistant professor Richard Lunt announced a solar energy-absorbing product that could be used to replace glass windows and other display screens. These see-through solar panels are still in early development and boast only 1% efficiency. Lunt and the team believe they can increase the efficiency to 5% in the future. Despite such positive reporting, no timeline for commercial and residential release has been set.

Solar Roadways:

Since May, Micheal Naphan’s brilliant and funny “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways” short film invigorated the public and social media with the idea of a world powered by the roads we drive. The design would enable easy-to-change traffic markings and easy-to-repair hexagonal solar panel tiles that seem to literally solve every problem of maintaining and powering American’s freeway infrastructure. Amsterdam even took a cue from the Solar Roadways team, opening the first solar bike path in the world this November. But, as far as when Americans can expect to see solar roadways installed in their neighborhoods, the question remains unanswered.

It seems inevitable that in the future, solar panels will be installed on almost anything that requires power. But, when will this shift occur? Five years for now? Ten? Twenty? People want to know when we can switch from fossil fuels to a completely clean and sun-powered future. The truth is we already have the tools and technologies to achieve energy independence and they are available for commercial consumption now.

No matter how much buzz solar roadways and windows are receiving, they will not be able to deliver solutions for consumers for a long time. New, flashy solar tech is simply too expensive and too inefficient when compared to traditional solar panel technologies offered by companies such as SunPower and SolarCity. To give some perspective, Amsterdam’s bike path was a $3.7 million dollar project and will only generate enough power for two to three households (Hoium). Whereas a traditional solar system from SunPower or SolarCity would cost no more than “$53,049 based on SolarCity’s recently reported cost structure…” powering one home for only “…1.4% of the cost of the solar bike path (Hoium).”

The story is the same for all the aforementioned new solar tech options. Michigan’s window technology—even if the final product reached 5% efficiency—could never compete with the power of SunPower’s current solar technology. At 21.5% efficiency, SunPower panels have been and still are the most powerful solar panels on the market. In addition, the cost of extra wiring required to install solar windows would be a huge financial burden when compared to the cost of installing traditional solar panels.

Though these new technologies are amazing, there is really no need for them. Our Mojave Desert is vast enough that, if we filled it with solar panels, we could power the entire country “three times over (Hoium).” Of course, storage and transportation of this energy continues to be a hurdle for scientists and engineers to overcome. So it seems that the alternative energy answers we seek have been here—right under our noses and on top of our neighbors’ roofs.



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