A new year full of exciting new discoveries in the field of commercial energy lies ahead, and after making plenty of headlines in Germany, Australia and the United States in 2014, it looks like there will be little to slow solar down in 2015.
Whilst subsidies might be being tailed off for solar commercial energy generation here in the UK, there are dozens of exciting new developments in the field waiting to break through over the next twelve months.
We’ve picked five of the solar technologies we think are going to prove to be game changers – or at the very least, get people talking – by this time next year.
More Efficient Photovoltaic Solar Cells
Starting off with the most obvious solution, 2015 is likely to herald the commercialisation of a new generation of solar cell.
The solar panel as we know it hasn’t improved all that much in terms of efficiency at turning sunlight into electricity since the benchmark was laid down in 1989 of around 20%.
However, 2014 laid out the groundwork for a new generation of more productive photovoltaic cells – and 2015 could be the year we see this new generation take off.
Just this month researchers at the University of New South Wales Australia reached a breakthrough of converting 40% of sunlight into electricity.
“This is the highest efficiency ever reported for sunlight conversion into electricity,” UNSW Scientia Professor and Director of the Advanced Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP) Professor Martin Green said.
Nanoparticle Paint, Meet Concentrated Solar Power
Concentrated Solar Power – or CSP – is a concept perfect for countries with a large amount of space and a lot of sunlight. Using hundreds mirrors in a single installation to focus sunlight onto a tower filled with molten salt, CSP plants use the steam from that super-hot salt to drive a turbine and create electricity.
The beauty of CSP is it works when cloudy or dark – the downside is the tower itself reflects a lot of sunlight. However, a team at the University of California, San Diego, believe they have something that could all-but eliminate that flaw.
“We want the black hole of sunlight,” says Professor Sungho Jin from University of California San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, of his team’s new ‘Nanoparticle Paint’.
This special paint can be applied directly to the solar receivers of a CSP plant, absorbing sunlight at a rate of 90% efficiency and capable of withstanding temperatures of over 700C.
Not only does it make CSP more productive, it has the added benefit of protecting the comparatively delicate light-gathering apparatus, increasing the lifespan of the panels and reducing maintenance costs.
As part of an architecture festival, the city of Hamburg, Germany welcomed a building unlike any other on the planet, thanks to it’s otherworldly green hue.
The reason this apartment block looks a little like jell-o is the algae being housed in glass panels across it’s facade. Known as a photobioreactor and developed by SolarLeaf, this living solar panel absorbs daylight and CO2, photosynthesises, and generates heat of 40C that warms the building.
Rather than sunlight directly creating electricity or powering a turbine, the algae photosynthesise it into biogas, which rises through each panel and is syphoned off an collected.
Dr Jan Wurm, Arup’s Europe research leader, explains: “The SolarLeaf biofacade is a way of storing solar energy to use as fuel later. It’s a pilot project with data being collected on energy production and usage until mid 2015.”
Charge Your Mobile at the Solarbox
London School of Economics 2014 graduates entrepreneurs Harold Craston and Kirsty Kenney launched the first-ever Solarbox in London last month.
What is Solarbox? The idea is so simple, you might be surprised it’s not been thought of before.
A 150W solar panel sits atop a green version of London’s iconic phone box, whilst inside is a USB charging point for mobile phones.
The twist that makes the project financially sustainable is there is also a screen inside, playing advertisements to those charging their smartphone in exchange for the battery boost.
With an average of 80 visitors a day spending between 5-10 minutes per visit, the first Solarbox on Tottenham Court Road has set a high benchmark for the ten new solar boxes set to be operating in London by April 2015.
Sustainable Solar Panel Production
You might be thinking that solar as a commercial electricity venture is already sustainable, so what’s to change?
But is a solar panel really as environmentally-friendly as it seems if it’s produced at a factory that requires fossil fuels to operate? That’s the question more and more photovoltaic solar cell manufacturers are asking themselves.
Amid falling costs on the materials needed to produce a solar panel, manufacturers are using the money from reduced production costs to re-analyse their overheads.
US corporation SunPower have achieved a silver level award in sustainability, proving that their panels are the product of a fully sustainable manufacturing process, and abstain from using harmful compounds like cadmium chloride
“We wanted to help our customers make their homes as environmentally sustainable as possible. Our products are now fully recyclable and we use geothermal and other forms of renewable energy to make them. In order to get the award, we had to make sure all our suppliers use materials with a low risk of toxicity so they can be recycled safely,” says SunPower’s chief operating officer Marty Neese.
We expect other manufacturers to adopt similar standards for themselves, or at least internally audit their development process over the coming year.