Solar panel against blue sky

This article was first published in the August/September 2015 issue of North Simcoe Life.

The International Energy Agency predicts that if industry and governments do their part, solar will be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050. For this to happen, they stress “the need for clear, credible and consistent signals from policy makers.”

What signals are we getting in Canada? In 2014, Canada was a world leader in fossil fuel subsidies, pegged at $34 billion a year, according to the International Monetary Fund. And, according to a UN sponsored report, 2014 Canadian renewable energy investments were $8 billion. No wonder we are lagging.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. and Europe, innovations are paving the way to cost parity with fossil fuels.

A New Way to Make Solar Panels

Traditional solar cells are made with crystalline silicon. Production is very energy intensive, making it the most expensive material in solar panels.

Rayton Solar of California has figured out how to use 50 to 100 times less silicon per panel. Using a new high tech process, they cut silicon in much thinner layers (only 4 micrometers thick) without any waste.  They say that their panels can be manufactured in the U.S. at a cost of 60% less than solar panels made in China, where most are made.

Rayton 1

Rayton particle accelerator cuts silicon in thin layers without any waste.

Solar for the North

Solar power generation no longer requires lots of sunlight. Researchers at Finland’s Aalto University have created a black solar cell with record-breaking 22.1% efficiency (versus the industry standard of 15%). And the best part: It works really well on cloudy days and with low sun angles.

Transparent Solar Cells

Transparent cell

Ubiquitous Energy, an MIT startup, has done the impossible: They have created a transparent solar cell that can be used as a window or display for an electronic device.

A transparent surface does not typically absorb light. In these cells, organic salts are used to absorb non-visible wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light. The light is then transferred to traditional solar cells that convert it into electricity.

The prototype currently has an efficiency of 1%, although the researchers think that 10% is possible. That may not sound impressive, but with widespread use, the numbers would add up.

Capturing More Energy From the Sun

A team of scientists from MIT and Stanford University are working on solar cells that have proven to boost efficiency by 50%. Their “tandem” photovoltaics use both silicon and perovskite as semiconductor materials, thereby absorbing more of the solar energy spectrum. Silicon absorbs photons at the top of the spectrum, while perovskite captures photons in the lower infrared range.

Solar Panels That Retain Energy

Today’s solar panels can only store energy for a few microseconds. Inspired by how plants generate energy through photosynthesis with extremely high efficiency, chemists at UCLA have found a way to organize inexpensive plastic photovoltaic materials to greatly improve their ability to retain energy from sunlight. The key is to separate positive and negative charges by arranging the elements precisely, like plants do, to prevent electrons from freely hopping about.

Concentrating PV Panels

How do you concentrate the power of sunlight in a solar panel while minimizing the use of silicon? Use lenses, the way you would light a fire with a magnifying glass. A number of American companies such as Sunrgi, Emcore and Solaria are racing to bring concentrating PV panels to market in the next year or two. Prototypes are breaking records with efficiencies of up to 45% to date.

Heliotropism: Tracking the Sun Naturally

Current electronic based systems that rotate solar panels to track the sun are costly to buy, install, maintain, and operate. Their complexity also leads to breakdowns.

Sulas of Colorado has created a simple, inexpensive, reliable and powerful tracking technology that uses the power of the sun to rotate a collection of solar panels. They call it the HelioDrive. (Heliotropism is the ability of flowers to follow the sun.)

Sulas HelioDrive

The HelioDrive relies on three components: a parabolic solar concentrator, a receiver filled with a small amount of engineered paraffin wax (that acts as a hydraulic motor), and a single moving component that translates linear movement into rotational motion. The system can lift over 3,000 pounds and operate in a wide range of environmental conditions.

The HelioDrive parabolic concentrator

World leaders are meeting in Paris this November to finalize legally binding carbon reduction plans for every nation. We need a National Clean Energy Strategy and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. The transition to a carbon free economy is the greatest economic opportunity of all time (source: Jeremy Rifkin, political advisor and author of the Third Industrial Revolution). Let’s get in the game.