Solar, Solar Everywhere

Written by mfrey


As a native Californian I think solar power is an obvious choice for favorite renewable energy source. Even though solar power is a small part of the world’s renewable portfolio right now, smart policy decisions paired with technological advances will help bring solar forward as an integral part of the green economic recovery. The following are a few highlights of solar technology that I’ve come across recently, and please feel free to add your own to the comments.

Starting at the small end of the spectrum, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have come up with thin, flexible solar cells that compete with traditional solar cells in terms of efficiency. What makes these particularly exciting is that they use a lot less material (less is more, and less is cheaper), they are flexible, and they can be made see through. There are a lot of possibilities with this sort of technology. Too bright out? Roll down the solar cell blinds! Convert your car to run off of a battery, then just stick a clear solar cell array on your roof. Semiconductor manufacturer Semprius, based in Durham, North Carolina, expects to begin a pilot project manufacturing the cells in about one year’s time.

From some of the world’s smallest to the world’s largest, Abengoa Solar has just started commercial operations on its PS20 solar power tower, the largest solar power tower in the world located near Seville, Spain. PS20 is expected to avoid 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, part of a larger installation that will reach 300 MW and prevent 185,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Not only is Abengoa showing that solar power can provide electricity on a massive scale, initial testing indicates that PS20 is producing more electricity than anticipated.

Last but definitely not least, and much closer to home, is Solyndra, a manufacturer of cylindrical thin-film solar cells. Based in Fremont, California, Solyndra’s innovative design (the modules look like a row of dark fluorescent lightbulbs) marries easy installation, low cost, and high efficiency. At Livermore Cinemas in California, a recent installation of Solyndra equipment has given it the distinction of the most solar electrical capacity of any movie theater in the United States. Even more impressive is the fact that the system (with a rated capacity of 132 kW) took only four days to install. Having recently received a loan guarantee from the DOE to the tune of $535 million, this surely won’t be the last you hear of Solyndra.

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  1. Anonymous

    This, to me, is brilliant innovation. Consider the business center of every major city, and how many windows there are around. If these things are truly clear, every window can become a solar panel; commercial buildings, houses, car windows…

  2. Sanjay

    Though the above is definitely a great thing, I am a bit concerned on how the maintenance of the huge solar panels would be done – against heavy winds, thunder-storms, lightnings, and most importantly dust.

  3. Steve Fortuna

    I’ll have to agree – the places that consume most power per sq ft are skyscrapers in city centers. Most are built tall and thin, offering limited roof space for panels. Their huge vertical glass walls offer great potential for energy capture. Getting the energy from the distributed areas of a skyscraper’s outer windows to batteries or grid will be a challenge, but something that can be designed into future towers.

  4. Mark Frey

    I have two quick points on your comments:
    1) On wind: the Solyndra solar modules are designed to easily allow wind to pass over them. Because of their improved aerodynamics over traditional solar panels you don’t need to drill into the roof to put them in place.
    2) On dust: I haven’t seen the technology used outside of paint (not that I’ve looked for a couple years), but the Lotus effect can be used on surfaces to make them self-cleaning. Basically tiny bumps on the leaf / painted surface act as collection points for dew at night, which in turn removes dust as the dew drops form and roll off.

  5. Anonymous

    Your didn’t mention Abound Solar . They are starting to produce large solar modules and claim to be able to produce 3 million modules/year. They will have the lowest manufacturing and capitol costs in the industry. They say their electricity will be cost-competitive with natural gas or coal.
    Dr. Robert L. Stebbins,

  6. Judy

    Solutions to the simultaneous energy, environmental and financial crises will combine both local (small-scale) AND centralized (huge-scale) solutions. This article does a good job of outlining both types of solutions, yet, too often (as in Jesse’s post) they are posited as if we have to make a choice between them. I believe that ultimately, many aspects of our lives must be re-localized (energy, food, transportation) to solve all of these crises in the long term. However, in the meantime, we should embrace both local AND centralized energy solutions. One does nor prohibit the other.

  7. Jesse

    While one does not prohibit the other, it should not be a 50/50 split between large scale and small scale. Small scale solar is such a small portion of the ultimate solution that it may appear that a choice is being made. I would certainly put PV on my house if I wasn’t an apartment renter, but it is more important for me to live in a high density area where I can bicycle to work rather than own a house somewhere in the suburbs and put solar on it.

  8. Less

    Less usage
    Less waste
    Less reproduction.
    Then worry about more technology if it’s still necessary. Putting more technology first rather guarantees we will have More of the above, exacerbating our current situation.

  9. Heather

    The invention of smaller, flexible solar panels is great news for the sailing community because we don’t have much room on a sailboat but have big demands in terms of energy for the refrideration and battery systems aboard.
    I can’t wait to see this trickle down to the marine sector… I hope the price comes down too!

  10. Wendy

    I just looked up Abound Solar, they DON’T sell to the average Joe, only large companies that are going to put in large arays. This web site (Terrapass) is for the average Joe homeowner, NOT companies.

  11. Bob Meredith

    Right Wendy, And this average Joe is going to build one of those 132mw towers in my backyard or maybe I will cover my skyscraper with see through panels. I thought terra pass was about inovation on any scale.

  12. d. yerf

    A very intelligent, well-reasoned article.
    You don’t happen to be a Cambridge, England grad, do you?

  13. Mark Frey

    The graduation ceremony is in July, so I’m not really sure what that makes me in the meantime.