New Technologies Emerging for Solar Energy

By David L. Brown

There is an old saying about people who live in glass houses, but perhaps that is a model for the future. As it begins to sink in that cheap oil is a thing of the past, it is encouraging that some real progress appears to be taking place in the field of solar energy. For example, a story titled “High-Efficiency Organic Solar Concentrators for Photovoltaics” that appeared in the current issue of Science magazine describes a cheaper and effective method of creating electricity from the Sun’s rays.

The new approach relies on thin film dye coatings on regular glass, channeling the light into receptors at the edges of the glass. The panels do not have to rotate to face the sun, and the researchers at MIT predict the organic concentrator panels could be ready for the market in as little as three years, provide greater efficiency, and at lower cost than current solar collectors.

Here is a diagram from the ScienceDaily web site that reports on the new technology in this article:

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As the diagram shows, the dye particles that coat the glass transfers the light to the edges, where the solar cells convert it into electricity. By stacking two layers of collectors, both high voltage and low voltage power can be produced, enhancing the efficiency.

Because the panels can be mounted flat on roofs or other plane surfaces, they could easily be installed in many places. It could make it possible for owners of houses and commercial property to cut or even eliminate their electric costs, thus helping reduce the need for power produced with fossil fuels.

The new work from MIT isn’t the only news from the solar front. According to this article, also posted on the ScienceDaily site just a few days ago, an Australian researcher at Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Sustainable Resources (ISR) has developed transparent windows that could reduce heating and cooling costs while producing electricity from the Sun. Here is an excerpt from the story:

Professor John Bell said QUT had worked with a Canberra-based company Dyesol, which is developing transparent solar cells that act as both windows and energy generators in houses or commercial buildings.

He said the solar cell glass would make a significant difference to home and building owners’ energy costs and could, in fact, generate excess energy that could be stored or onsold.

Professor Bell said the glass was one of a number of practical technologies that would help combat global warming which was a focus of research at the ISR.

“The transparent solar cells have a faint reddish hue but are completely see-through,” Professor Bell said.

“The solar cells contain titanium dioxide coated in a dye that increases light absorption.

“The glass captures solar energy which can be used to power the house but can also reduce overheating of the house, reducing the need for cooling.”

Professor Bell said it would be possible to build houses made entirely of the transparent solar cells.

“As long as a house is designed throughout for energy efficiency, with low-energy appliances it is conceivable it could be self-sustaining in its power requirements using the solar-cell glass,” he said.

Imagine living in a house made entirely of glass and requiring nothing but the Sun to provide electricity, heating and cooling. Such a house would be the ultimate in green efficiency, although privacy issues would need to be addressed.

These are only two of the interesting new solar power possibilities that are coming over the horizon. As the cost of conventional energy continues to rise, there will be plenty of incentive for development and marketing of new alternatives such as these. One real bright feature of these new alternatives is that they do not rely on large quantities of silicon, which is expensive and in short supply.

What is needed now is government incentives to match, such as tax deductions, credits or grants for individuals or businesses that install environmentally friendly solar collectors. I know I would respond to such a program if it could be made affordable.

A couple of decades ago the government offered credits for the purchase of solar water heating systems, and the devices sold like hot cakes — until the subsidies were stopped. You don’t hear much about solar water heaters today, and that is too bad because hundreds of thousands of them could have been installed over the past couple of decades, helping to alleviate the current energy crisis. Congress and the administration could move the shift away from fossil fuels ahead by a giant step by instituting financial incentives to help people like me to take the move to solar.

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