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Photovoltaics Review: Recent Solar Power Innovations You Must See

Looking Back at Recent PV Innovations.. Energy. The lifeblood of modern civilization. Finding clean sources of it is very high on the green movement’s priority list, and one very promising field is solar photovoltaics (PV). We, at TreeHugger, have been covering the field for a while now, and we think it’s time to look in the rearview mirror at some of the top PV solar innovations from our archives. Thin Film Solar Record: 19.9% Efficiency image A shortage of silicon in the past few years and the demand for thin and flexible panels has helped increase the focus on thin film solar recently, and a lot of progress is being made. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has created thin film solar panels that are very close to competing with their more traditional silicon-based cousins. “The copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cell recently reached 19.9 percent efficiency in testing at the lab, setting a new world record.” CoolEarth Inflatable Solar Balloons Solar photovoltaic cells are still relatively expensive, so many companies are trying to find ways to reduce the PV surface area that they use. One way to do that is to use concentrators to direct more sunlight to smaller (but usually more efficient) solar panels. But even if you do that, you still have high costs for support materials and the concentrators themselves. That’s the problems that CoolEarth is trying to solve with its inflatable solar collectors. The balloons themselves are said to be 400 times cheaper than a concentrator of the same size made of polished aluminum, and they can be mounted on wires, reducing costs further. Maintenance is also easier: You can repair them with tape, and replace one unit in about 15 minutes. Sunrgi Xtreme Concentrated Photovoltaics: Solar Power Competitive With Fossil Fuels? Sunrgi recently made an impressive claim: They say that their system will soon be able to “produce electricity at a wholesale cost of 5 cents per kWh (kilowatt hour).” (!) They do it by concentrating the Sun’s light close to 2,000 times (!!!) into extremely efficient solar photovoltaic cells. Part of Sunrgi’s patent-pending technology has to do with the cooling of the solar cells, dual-axis sun tracking, and the way the whole system is optimized for mass-production. ‘Hairy’ Thin Film Solar Panels Using Nanowires We often hear about new exotic materials and strange shapes, but this could be the weirdest announcement yet: Researchers at McMaster University (coolest name ever) have succeeded in ‘growing’ light-absorbing nanowires made of high-performance photovoltaic materials on carbon-nanotube fabric. In other words, hairy solar panels. The aim is to produce flexible, affordable solar cells that, within five years, will achieve a conversion efficiency of 20%. Longer term, it’s theoretically possible to achieve 40% efficiency! Moth Eyes Biomimicry for Solar Panels Silicon is reflective, so a lot of light that could be turned into electricity is bounced back and lost. Anti-reflective coating is used, but its effectiveness is limited and it has downsides too. So while looking for a solution, researchers noticed that moths have very non-reflective eyes (“most likely an evolutionary defense against nocturnal predators”). The moth-eye process creates panels that reflect less than 2% of light. That’s a vast improvement over the 35 to 40% reflection rate seen without the anti-reflection coating layers. Solaria: 90% of the Power with 50% of the Silicon Solaria’s solar cells produce about 90% of a conventional solar panel’s power, while using half as much silicon, thus reducing costs. “Ordinarily, the silicon in a solar panel spans its surface, collecting light from as much area as possible. But Solaria slices the silicon into thin strips and spaces them apart so that they only account for about half the panel’s area. A clear molded plastic cover collects light from the entire panel and funnels it to the strips of silicon.” For more information, including images, see our post about Solaria’s solar panels. 1366 Technologies: Bringing Solar Power Closer to $1/Watt These guys are really clever. 1366 Technologies, a company named after the solar constant (there are 1366 watts of solar radiation hitting each square meter of the Earth on average) is working on improving multi-crystalline silicon solar panels. Three different innovations allowed them to make their prototype 27% more efficient than conventional multi-crystalline silicon solar cells, bringing its total efficiency to 19.5%, about the same as single-crystal silicon solar cells (which are more expensive). For more details on these three innovations, see our post about 1366 Technologies’ solar panels. Day4 Energy’s Innovation: 25% Cheaper Solar Panels Beating solar PV efficiency records in the lab is great but in the short-term, what matters most is what makes it to market. That’s why Day4 Energy’s recent innovation is so interesting: It should cut the cost of panels by 25% by increasing the efficiency of their cells to 17-18%, and the new panels should be on the market within 18 months. For more details on how they do it, see our post on Day4 Energy’s solar panels. Nanosolar: Driving Down Costs by ‘Printing’ Solar Panels Nanosolar is a company based in Palo Alto, California, which uses an innovative technique to produce a kind of “solar film”. To make the film, Nanosolar prints CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenium) onto a thin polymer using machines that look like printing presses. There is no costly silicon involved in the process, and, ultimately, a solar cell from Nanosolar will cost about one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of a standard silicon solar panel. Nanosolar has raised a lot of money, including from Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and from France’s EDF with investments of $50 million, and they are now ramping production as fast as possible.

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