At first blush, solar energy is perhaps the most elegant solution to our energy needs. The sun blasts our planet’s surface with more than enough energy to keep us going forever.
The United States government estimates that the Earth receives over 173,000 terawatts of energy every year, which is more than 10,000 times what humanity needs.
The challenge has always been collecting that energy. Even though most people are aware of photovoltaic cells, solar panels have been expensive enough to keep them firmly in the luxury bracket. For years the low efficiency of solar panels and the high costs per square inch of these panels made solar power economically unviable.
That has now changed. In the five years between 2008 and 2013, the cost of solar panels fell by over 50 percent. Between 2015 and 2017, experts estimate the cost will fall another 40 percent. Researchers in the United Kingdom say they are surprised by how quick solar adoption is growing. They estimate that the costs will fall fast enough to allow solar to contribute 20% of our energy consumption by 2027. That benchmark would have been unimaginable a few years back.
It seems the technology has caught up in terms of costs and efficiency. It’s now at the brink of mass adoption. But where can the technology go from here? What’s in store for the future of solar energy?
Every new technology brings new opportunities for business. Tesla and Panasonic are already planning a humongous solar panel manufacturing factory in Buffalo, New York. Tesla’s Powerwall is already one of the most popular domestic energy storage devices in the world. The big players aren’t the only ones benefitting from the solar energy boom.
There is likely to a be a lot of demand for real estate. Landowners and farmers can lease out their land for the construction of new solar farms. Demand for medium voltage cable could rise since solar farms will need to be freshly connected to the grid. All the new opportunities will drive prices lower and drive the tech further.
Researchers have experimented with biological material in solar cells for a while now. Bacteria (specifically cyanobacteria) can eventually make it easier to power wireless devices. The efficiency of these bio-solar cells is nowhere close to conventional PV cells, but there is hope the technology will gradually catch up. One of the researchers at the Binghamton University’s Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, Seokheun ‘Sean’ Choi, believes bio-cells would be useful for remote areas where replacing batteries frequently isn’t an option.
Better Conversion to Electricity
Researchers from Israel and Germany partnered up to study if there was a better way to convert sunlight into electricity. Turns out that the most efficient way is also the most common – photosynthesis. The study confirmed that using biomass as fuel could eventually allow us to create artificial photosynthesis machines. These could convert sunlight into energy and store in a more natural way for later use.
Some countries lack the space for solar farms. An elegant solution to this problem is floating solar farms. Ciel & Terre International, a French energy company, has been working on a large scale, floating, solar solution since 2011. They have already installed a trial farm off the coast of the UK and are now looking at attempting similar projects in India, France, and Japan.
Wireless Power From Space
The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) believes getting closer to the sun is the best way to drive efficiency and collect more power. The team’s Space Solar Power Systems (SSPS) project is trying to send solar panels to near-Earth orbit. The power collected will be wirelessly transmitted back to base station via microwaves. If successful, this technology could be a true game changer.
Energy Harvesting Trees
A team of researchers in Finland is trying create a tree that stores solar energy in its leaves. These leaves could then be used to power small appliances and mobile phones. The trees are likely to be 3D printed, using biomaterials that mimic organic wood. Each leaf generates power from sunlight, but can also use kinetic energy from the wind. The trees are designed to survive indoors as well as outdoors. The project is currently in the prototype phase at the VTT research center in Finland.
Efficiency is, at the moment, the biggest hurdle to better solar power. At this moment, more than 80% of all solar panels have an energy efficiency of less than 15 percent. Most of these solar panels are stationary, which means they miss out on direct sunlight. A majority of the sunlight that hits the panels is wasted. Better design, better chemistry and the use of sunlight-absorbing nanoparticles could drive efficiency.
Some researchers believe they have found a way to capture the infrared spectrum of light for use in solar panels. Right now, infrared rays pass right through the panels and are wasted. But if this spectrum of invisible light can be captured, it could boost energy efficiency by 30 percent.
Meanwhile, IBM is trying to make individual PV cells smaller so that more of them could be squeezed into tighter spaces. The company believes it could eventually pack ten times more PV cells into the same space.
Solar energy is clearly the future. Till date, humanity has only scratched the surface of the sun’s true potential. The sun deploys more energy to the planet’s surface than what’s used every year. While the costs have reduced drastically over the years, the technology has remained the same. Researchers across the globe are working tirelessly to improve the way sunrays are collected and converted into energy.
The relentless drive of technology will eventually help solar energy contribute a major part in the annual energy needs. Better and more efficient devices will be powered by the sun and have the ability to store this energy for longer periods. The coming energy boom is set to change lives forever.