The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of reaching less than $1 a watt for complete installed solar systems by 2020. Reaching $1/watt would bring the cost of solar power to six cents/ kWh, which is cheaper than the average cost from new natural gas power plants and would allow solar to grow without any subsidies. But how are we going to get there? Scientists and entrepreneurs from around the world are working in their labs and garages developing new solar technologies. They range from big leaps in existing technologies to completely transformative innovations. Here’s a list of several new technologies that we’re most excited about.
1) Solar Paint
Instead of being limited to flat surfaces, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have developed low-cost solar paint using nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide, coated with cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide. Once brushed onto any conducting materials and exposed to the sunlight, the paint will create electricity with a light-to-energy conversion efficiency of 1%. Its efficiency isn’t high enough for current market use, but hopefully with continued development, we can imagine a day that any surface could generate solar power.
(Image courtesy of TreeHugger)
2) Solar Fabric
A company called Pvillion is currently making fabric with solar power capabilities for use in commercial applications. The company’s fabric, which is as efficient as standard rigid solar panels, could be used to cover structures such as the US embassy in London, which will have a generation capacity of 124MW.
3) Solar Windows
One of the ways that solar could become mainstream is by diversifying the locations that it could be placed, rather than just rooftops and large installations in the desert. Companies like Oxford Photovoltaics are working to develop transparent glass solar panels, which would allow windows to become power generators. Imagine how useful this technology could be if we turned every window covering our skyscrapers clean energy producers.
4) Solar Roadways
Another location that’s currently being tested for solar capabilities are walkways, roads, and parking lots. Spanish tech company Onyx Solar is currently developing walkable PV floor panels and Solar Roadways is currently prototyping their plan to cover roads with embedded solar panels with 12 x 36 foot parking lot. Parking lots cover up to 15% of city surfaces and highways crisscrossing all over the country, so the potential for this technology is enormous.
5) Space-based Solar
If we ever run out of space for all these new technologies, we might start getting our energy from outer space. That’s exactly what Solaren Corp is thinking as they plan to beam down solar power from orbit beginning in mid 2016. Even Pacific Gas & Electric is interested in the idea and has agreed to purchase 200 MW of electricity from them.
6) Increased Efficiency
What about ways to increase the efficiency of today’s technology? Solar panel manufacturer China Sunergy, is building a pilot manufacturing line for a two-sided solar cell that can absorb light from both the front and back. Where one-sided solar panel might generate 340 watts, a two-sided one might generate up to 400 watts. They expect the panels to generate 10 to 20 percent more electricity over the course of a year compared to one-sided panels. At the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, Soitec, CEA-Leti and the Helmholtz Center Berlin jointly announced a new record for solar efficiency of 44.7% using CPV or concentrated photovoltaic technology. Although just in the research phase, these efficiencies have the potential to revolutionize the solar industry.
These technologies are just a sample of the great innovations in both business models and technologies happening around the world in the field of photovoltaics. Some of them may not pan out, but many others will and will usher in a new era of renewable energy. For all of us in the field, the future of solar looks very bright.