The Future of Solar Energy

With the current concentration on global warming, the existence of which is denied by only a few naysayers, developments in solar power are moving at a pace to fill the need for efficient green solutions to our seemingly insatiable desire for energy.

The failure of solar power to be more widely adopted to date seems primarily to be due to cost concerns, where the payback periods are now quoted to be 7+ years, and thus beyond the normal financial horizon for many potential participants, whose average occupancy of any particular house is expected to be 7 years. When a lower cost can be achieved, the benefits of mass production will cause a snowball effect in purchasing systems, and that time would seem to be drawing closer.

Durham University in the UK, ever photovoltaic solar research project, with more than $12M to be spent in the next four years, starting in April. The principal investigator, Professor Ken Durose, has committed to “make a major contribution to achieving competitive photovoltaic solar energy”. Nine industrial partners and eight institutions will be involved in the project, which is aimed at reducing the thickness, and thus cost, of solar cells.

Much as this may seem to be a promising advance, an alternative approach is being adopted by commercial interests, in the form of a company called G24i which is also in the UK, in Wales. They have developed what are called fourth generation solar cells, which are a thin-film product, the latest buzzword in the solar marketplace.

Their invention is a dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC), which is, simply, printing a thin layer of titanium oxide on to a thin-film of metal foil, and then performing some molecular manipulations to achieve the desired reaction to light. The product is manufactured on a roll-to-roll process, similar to that used in the textile industry. They commenced production last year, and are planning to expand this year to a production capacity of 200 Megawatts.

The process by which DSSC works has been compared to that of photosynthesis in plants, and it is more sensitive than conventional silicon cells, producing electricity from a wider range of the light spectrum and lower levels of lighting. It is very flexible and one-fiftieth of the weight of conventional glass silicon cells, and can even be produced in designer colors! The initial market is for devices that could not be made with the older technology, supplying power for portable electronics, particularly for mobile phones in the developing world.

With a growth in the traditional solar cell market of 35% per annum, and a continuing global shortage of silicon projected up to 2010, G24i would seem to be very well placed to take away business from the conventional suppliers. Their technology is available at much lower cost, and expansion would seem to be limited only by their ability to grow in a controlled manner.

On what seems to be a more esoteric front, it’s reported that scientists are considering the possibility of a space engineering project that would dwarf any other that has been attempted to date. While the sheer size of the project would require governments to take the first steps at an international level, researchers from the USA, Europe and Japan are proposing building giant solar arrays in orbit and beaming the energy to Earth.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Damphousse of the Pentagon has spoken of the need for “hundreds of sorties every week” in order to move the tons of material that would be required. A recent study by the Pentagon concluded that such a project was nearly technologically possible right now, and that robots could be used to facilitate the construction in space. More realistically, perhaps, Leopold Summerer of the European Space Agency has projected that the generation of power in space may be about 20 years away, but the concept is being actively pursued.

Finally, what may prove to be the most promising current development in solar energy has just been announced by Global Warming Solutions, Inc. of Houston. Successful tests have been conducted on hybrid solar modules, which produce both heat and electricity from one unit. The combined efficiency of the modules is reported to reach 85%, significantly better than the 40%+, then a record, achieved a year ago by Spectrolab using concentrator solar cells to produce electricity only.

The technologies used include some originally developed for industrial lasers, stated Dr. Alexander Kornaraki, the COO. “The quantum pump separates the heat and the electrical photons of the incident solar light”, giving the most efficient spectra to the photovoltaic process. The modules produce up to 28 Watts of electricity and 93 Watts of heat per square foot. The projected payback period is no more than five years.

Global Warming Systems have several pilot systems, and one with 108 square feet of panels provides 100% of the energy, both electrical and heating, to a single family home. Even more promising, these panels are efficient even as far north as Alaska, which is a new achievement for the industry.

Learn more about Solar Power and how you can use it to produce electric power, to heat, or even cool your home!