Solar technologies have been powering their way up the energy market over the last few decades thanks to advancements in collection, capacity and throughput. As noted by PV-Tech, there’s enough “technical potential” for solar panels in the U.S. to match 39 percent of current electricity sales.
But rooftop solar panels are just one small slice of the solar solution. Here’s how changing technology is helping shake up the solar status quo.
Before diving into the new direction of solar power, it’s worth taking a look at the most common current uses of solar energy technology. First up are photovoltaic devices — solar panels — which are installed on commercial or residential rooftops to convert sunlight into electricity. The limiting factor here is energy loss. As noted by Alternative Energy, most panels run at around 15 percent efficiency, meaning 85 percent of incoming sunlight is lost to heat. New materials such as gallium arsenide may be able to increase this efficiency three-fold, but they’re currently in the research and testing phase.
Next up is concentrated solar power. This technology uses large reflectors to direct focused sunlight into a small, high-efficiency collector, which then heats up fluids like water, molten salt or oil. These fluids produce steam which is used to drive an electric generator. You won’t see concentrated solutions on residential rooftops since they require massive panels and huge amounts of space, but they can generate a lot of clean, renewable energy.
There’s officially room for both adapting and changing technology to diversify the solar market. Many cities have installed solar-powered LED street lights, which not only collect enough energy during the day to run all night, but — thanks to the directional nature of LEDs — also help limit light pollution. Solar parking meters and pay stations are also a viable option since they require minimal energy to operate and little effort to maintain.
Meanwhile, ExtremeTech notes that there are also bigger ideas on the horizon. As noted above, there’s enough viable solar panel space on American buildings to generate close to 40 percent of the country’s electricity needs. While ground installations are possible in low-population areas, similar installs in urban centers simply aren’t viable. However, ocean-based platforms have real promise. Companies like Heliofloat are now designing ways to keep panels upright, damage-free and capable of enduring the rocky ride that accompanies sea-surface flotation. With the right weight-to-energy ratios and low-enough costs, ocean-solar could be the next big step for sunlight.
Residential and industrial uses offer long-term benefits for users, but the evolution of mobile devices has consumers wondering: Where’s my personalized solar power panel? As noted by Elektor Magazine, there’s some progress on this front: One inventor created a backpack-mounted solar panel/USB charger for his trip across the Gobi desert, while Live Mint reports that a fully solar backpack — with a 10,000 mAh lithium polymer battery pack and GPS tracker — is in the development phase.
When it comes to changing technology and solar power, though, there’s one unavoidable query: What about solar-powered smartphones? Answer: They’re coming, sort of. According to Scientific American, a number of solar-charged phones saw small production runs just a few years ago. The problem is charging. Some required the user to connect to a solar panel to charge, whereas others had collectors built into the back of the phone itself, meaning it needed to be outside and facedown to receive power. Now, Japan’s Kyocera Corporation is rolling out an industry first: screen-side, virtually transparent photovoltaic cells that promise one minute of talk time for every three minutes of solar power. The previous version got just 15 minutes for every two hours of charging.
Beyond efficiency, however, the rise of solar phones also demands a change in user behavior: Devices need to emerge from pockets and backpacks and be allowed to bask in the sun.
Solar power is changing, simultaneously shifting toward both large-scale industrial and more personalized use. Bottom line? Panels are just the beginning — solar is poised to shake the status quo.