The sun offers us the opportunity to harness its naturally occurring energy and transform it into electricity without the carbon emissions produced by fossil fuel generation. Since the discovery of the solar photovoltaic effect nearly two centuries ago,1 solar has become one of the world’s fastest-growing new sources of energy2 – thanks largely to the efforts of scientists and engineers who have cultivated innovative technologies that enable us to more effectively harness the enormous potential of solar. To put that potential in context, the amount of solar energy falling on the United States in one hour at midday is approximately equal to the annual electricity demand of the whole country.3 From lab-grown solar cells to solar-powered windows, transport and lanterns, we take a look at the latest in solar technology and how its development could help power the world in different ways.
There have been many interesting advances in solar technology. One that seems to be commonly overlooked is tracking technology, possibly because of how simple the concept is. Tracking systems rotate the solar panels through the day so they are perpendicular to the sun for as much of the day as possible. This generally results in substantially increased production and a flatter production curve throughout the day. In sunnier parts of Australia, the production increase can be 20%, which justifies the approximate 10% increase in cost for tracking.4 New Energy Solar uses tracking technology at most of its solar farms to generate more electricity each day.
Hot solar cells
Some fundamental limitations of silicon photovoltaic cells prevent them from absorbing a majority of the energy in sunlight, which comes from a combination of ultraviolet, visible and infrared radiation. Standard silicon solar cells mostly capture visible light which makes up less than half of the energy in sunlight, so most modern solar panels have an efficiency of around 32%.5 However, one team of MIT scientists has developed a different type of solar device – one that can capture far more energy by converting sunlight into heat and then into focused beams of light in the spectrum that the photovoltaic cells can use, potentially increasing efficiency dramatically.6 Although in preliminary stages, with enhancements, the technology could be roughly twice as efficient as conventional photovoltaics.7
The creation of perovskites – a flexible material that can be printed or sprayed directly onto a surface – also has the potential to change the solar market entirely, particularly since many panels are currently reliant on stiff, bulky materials.8 Synthetic perovskites are a lab-grown mineral with a crystalline structure that can convert sunlight into energy.9 The potential application of perovskites includes application to commercial and residential rooftops, or incorporation into glass products. This would result in surfaces that generate electricity without the need to install solar panels on the surface. The technology is in the early stages, but researchers including Australians at CSIRO, teams at Stanford University and the EU Consortium Solliance are working on new ways to manufacture and use perovskites so that they are suitable for broad commercial applications and long-term use.10
Perovskites aren’t the only way that glass could be used to generate electricity. New technologies simultaneously allow visible light to pass through the glass while invisible wavelengths of light are deflected to the edges of the glass and converted into electricity.11 This technology has the potential to transform homes, vehicles and office buildings themselves into sources of electricity that can be used to meet on-site electricity demand or be fed back into the grid.12 According to some scientists, installing solar windows on a 50-storey building could reduce carbon emissions the equivalent of 2.2 million vehicles each year.13 Australian business ClearVue is currently in the process of making its glass available for purchase around the world.14
While much of the developed world is using increasing quantities of renewable resources to meet consumer needs and reduce emissions, undeveloped communities across the globe continue to suffer from energy poverty. This is a crippling issue that impacts more than a billion people who lack access to safe, clean and reliable energy sources and who often rely on dangerous kerosene-fuelled lamps that can cause severe health problems.15 In response to energy poverty, charities like SolarBuddy have developed solar-powered rechargeable lanterns to help bring safer and more sustainable light into these communities. With the support of businesses like New Energy Solar, SolarBuddy helps to cut down on the use of kerosene, improving health and reducing costs – with the organisation’s recent Impact Assessment Report finding that 56% of the surveyed sample using the lanterns no longer bought or used the fuel.
Solar-powered transportation has evolved rapidly since Australia’s first zero-emissions, solar-powered bus in 201316 and solar-powered train in 2017.17 An American company, Solar Impulse, has developed solar-powered planes with the wingspan of a Boeing 747. The Solar Impulse 2, which made a historic trip around the world in 2015, carries more than 17,000 photovoltaic cells that charge its solar batteries – enabling the aircraft to stay aloft for days at a time.18 In the meantime, a fully solar-powered car is set to be released in 2019: the award-winning Lightyear One, which can reportedly drive for months on end with a single charge.19
Although many technologies are in their early stages, their continued development offers us more ideas and opportunities to harness the power of the sun – a natural and practically limitless resource. Renewable energy has the potential to solve many challenges facing the world and, with technology continuing to evolve, New Energy Solar remains positive that the future of solar looks bright. We look forward to returning in the new year.
Liam serves as Chief Investment Officer for New Energy Solar. He has 15 years’ experience in M&A, corporate and business development, projects, and commercial management in the energy, infrastructure, mining and agribusiness sectors.