Developments in Solar Energy You Need to Know About
Solar Energy has a long history. It all started more than a century ago when Henry Hertz discovered the photoelectric effect in 1887. Ever since solar PV panels have gone through a massive transformation and the systems that can be built based on them have the sky as the limit. We are in the innovation era and some of the more exciting examples of solar energy are shown here, by the solar experts:
1. Floating PV:
There was a time when solar energy was competing with other productive industries for the utilization of land to install PV systems. The lack of space in different countries was affecting the solar energy penetration rate because in many cases the land was destinated for farming, and agriculture, among other activities.
Solar energy scientists and engineers came up with a very innovative solution to this challenge by implementing solar energy farms on the surface of reservoirs and water resources. Besides facing the space issue, this approach improved the efficiency and performance of the PV systems because water helps to cool down the solar cells – which leads to more energy production (around 10 % of improvement).
An interesting fact was highlighted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US, which shows that PV systems installed on just one-fourth of the nation’s manmade reservoirs would be able to generate about 10 % of U.S. energy production.
2. Solar Tiles
Also known as solar shingles, these devices can produce solar energy without affecting the aesthetical appearance of the roof where the solar panels are intended to be located. A difference from the standard solar modules, these tiles provide protection against the weather in the building. The improvements in this type of solar module have gone as far as producing tiles with monocrystalline, which is the same material used for traditional solar panels.
Even though the installation of such solar shingles can take a little longer, the maintenance is easier to perform, and structural concerns are assessed right from the beginning. Furthermore, they are more cost-effective if you’re planning to replace the roof as part of your renovation plans.
3. Solar Windows
The aesthetics of standard PV modules has affected the implementation of this technology in several cases. Historical buildings in the city center of most capitals and towns in the world are protected to preserve the culture. Likewise, modern buildings are designed with a specific appearance and it’s important for the owners to keep it this way, which has left PV panels out of their considerations to implement green energy technologies.
MIT scientists and engineers took this challenge and offered an innovative solution that helps to implement solar energy in these well-preserved buildings.
The transparent solar cells, as they have been called, can be placed on top of any surface and without affecting its looks produces solar energy. A different type of radiation is absorbed by these cells, which means that the visible light goes through them and therefore the visuals are preserved.
Solar windows have reached now around 10% of efficiency, which may seem low but comparing it to the standard PV modules 15 – 20% is a big advance in this innovation. It is also cost-effective when considering installing or replacing the windows of any building.
4. Solar Noise Barriers
Noise barriers are structures that lower the noise from the noise sources to the sensitive receptors such as hospitals, and schools, among others. High-traffic cities and countries have built noise barriers along their highways and roads to perform noise abatement. In the US, for instance, 3000 miles (over 4800 km) have noise barriers.
The opportunity to reduce noise levels and produce green energy has been spotted in several countries now and these structures that are usually built from a combination of earth, wood, and concrete, among others, can be used to support solar PV panels and produce solar energy while reducing noise levels. Another strategy to build PV noise barriers is to use the PV panels as the obstructions for the noise or integrate them into the design of the barriers.
In the specific case of the US, including PV in all their noise barriers will produce around 400 GWh, which is approximately enough to cover 37000 homes. The potential of this application and the benefits of implementing it to diversify energy production and achieve the 2030 goals are very promising.
5. Green Hydrogen
Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, and it produces zero emissions when it’s being burnt (utilize to produce energy). It can be found naturally in water molecules, the atmosphere, and almost all living molecules. It is also in the sun and most of the stars. Fun fact, Jupiter is mostly composed of hydrogen. Even though in daily life hydrogen doesn’t play a very relevant role – leaving all the work to carbon and oxygen atoms, it is used in several industries. It is used for fertilizer, grinding metals, and producing ammonia, which is needed to create plastics.
Since hydrogen is only slightly present in the atmosphere, it must be extracted from other molecules by highly energy-based processes. Nowadays, it is mostly created by heating up natural gas and separating syngas which is a mixture of carbon dioxide and hydrogen (Gray hydrogen). Another, less pollutant, way to produce this hydrogen utilizes the same process but captures the carbon particles (Blue Hydrogen).
Green hydrogen has its name because the energy source to produce it is either of renewables (solar, wind, hydro, etc.). Solar PV combined with water electrolyzers are commonly used to produce the hydrogen that is used for the industries mentioned before or to create energy by using fuel cells.
6. Solar at Night
Energy consumption at night has been a challenge for solar photovoltaics if you compared it with other energy sources. In some way, all other options can produce electricity at night even in small proportions. But solar panels by themselves were not able to cover the energy demand of a household at night without using storage systems. These made the systems more expensive bringing the implementation rate lower.
This challenge was addressed by researchers at the University of California. They have created solar cells that work at night and produce energy based on the temperature difference between the cell and its surroundings. The efficiency that these panels have now is significantly lower. Standard PV panels, but even then, they can provide more energy than what can be stored or fed back to the grid.
Solar energy is a growing technology and innovations occur every day at unimaginable rates. Scientists and engineers are working towards improving efficiencies, developing new concepts and materials, as well as new energy strategies to make solar energy more feasible. At the same time, the prices of installing a PV system will continue falling as the demand keeps going up, which makes this technology more affordable for everyone.