Exciting new solar technologies that are genuinely important (and why they are important)

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Exciting new solar technologies that are genuinely important (and why they are important). In the realm of solar technology, enticing headlines often promise groundbreaking innovations poised to revolutionize our world. However, it’s crucial to approach such news with a critical eye. While some advancements may still be years, even decades, away from practical implementation, others might never materialize.

It’s essential to recognize that the world already possesses highly efficient solar technology, a fact acknowledged by the International Energy Agency in 2020 when they declared solar power the “cheapest source of electricity in history.” The key lies in widespread deployment rather than waiting for hypothetical breakthroughs.

Jigar Shah’s mantra, “deploy, deploy, deploy,” succinctly captures the essence. We have the necessary tools; it’s about implementing them on a large scale. Despite this, ongoing advancements continue to enhance our existing technologies, ensuring a sustainable future.

Among these advancements are innovative materials, novel approaches to solar panel construction, and creative placement solutions. These developments promise tangible benefits and are worthy of our attention.

While some new technologies may capture headlines, the real progress lies in the refinement and application of what we already have. By understanding the importance of these genuine advancements, we can move closer to achieving 100% renewable energy and create a more sustainable world.

Why do certain breakthroughs matter more than others?

Important technological advancements all have two elements in common:

They realistically improve an older, proven technology.
They are financially viable or have a route to commercial viability.

There are various approaches to improve present solar technology:

increased effectiveness
Material availability has been improved, and toxicity has been minimised.
Reduced manufacturing difficulties and/or cost
Increased lifespan
New applications for technology

In one or more of these ways, the technologies we’ll look at below improve on existing technology. Furthermore, they are all either in use or almost so now.

Solar cells with silicon heterojunction and tandem solar cells

One type of heterojunction solar cell.

IImage: Sinovoltaics

What issue does it address? Improves the efficiency of solar cells
When will it be available for purchase? : Now
Is there room for advancement? : Yes,
but how significant will it be? Significant

These technologies are not exactly new—heterojunction cell technology was invented in the 1970s and has been used in commercially available solar panels for decades—but understanding them is critical to understanding how solar photovoltaics will be improved in the coming years.

The word “hetero” refers to the various layers of semiconductor material stacked together to make a solar cell. Silicon heterojunction cells (SHJs) have a crystalline silicon base layer covered in thin layers of amorphous silicon.

Each layer may generate power from a diverse spectrum of light wavelengths, making the entire cell more efficient than a standard silicon solar cell, which has only one layer of semiconductor material.

Heterojunction cells have traditionally been more difficult to manufacture than standard silicon solar cells, but recent material developments will make the technique more economically viable for manufacturers to convert to. One of these breakthroughs is the tandem solar cell, which combines additional super-thin layers to create an even more efficient cell.

To create tandem solar cells, solar researchers must explore for new materials with the appropriate qualities. These include perovskites and quantum dots, which we will discuss further below.

Perovskites Solar Cells

The structure of a thin-film vs a tandem solar cell. Image credit: DOE, United States

What issue does it address? Increases cell efficiency while decreasing cost and weight
When will it be available? : 1-2 years
Is there room for advancement? : Yes
How significant will it be? Potentially massive

Perovskites are a material class that was discovered in Russia in 1839. Many of them are semiconductors and have a specific crystal structure that can emerge when various elements combine to form molecules.

Perovskites are appealing to solar researchers for three reasons:

They are relatively simple to create without the use of complicated high-heat techniques.
They can be easily placed onto surfaces using liquid or vapour.
They can be “tuned” to generate electricity from a variety of light wavelengths, allowing them to collect photons that silicon cells cannot.

Unfortunately, because they degrade when exposed to oxygen and moisture, perovskites are difficult to maintain working for decades. However, improvements in recent years have substantially increased the stability of perovskite solar cells, and businesses are very near to commercialising perovskite products.

As previously stated, the earliest applications for perovskites will be in heterojunction and tandem solar cells, in which thin layers of perovskite absorb photons from specific wavelengths of light while silicon layers absorb photons from other wavelengths.

These cells’ combined capabilities will outperform the efficiency of silicon alone. Perovskites, which are easy to synthesise and can be put in extremely thin layers on flexible substrates, may enable enormous cost reductions in the production of solar cells in the distant future.

Perovskites may become practical in tandem configurations in the future, potentially stabilised or in combination with quantum dots. These technologies, however, are still several years away.

Placing panels in various locations

A roof of solar panels shades Pierre Escudie as he inspects the last plump grapes to be harvested athis vineyard in southwest France, Image credit: Sun’Agri

What issue does it address? Getting solar installed
When will it be available for purchase? : Right now.
Is there room for improvement? : Absolutely.
How much of an influence will it have?

One of the most difficult aspects of installing solar is determining where to place it. Although we prefer residential rooftops, we recognise that not all homeowners can profit from solar. Many residential neighborhoods are shady, and roofs must be renovated before adding solar panels, so it will take some time to get solar on enough homes.

Reservoirs, canals, and agricultural land are examples of places that can benefit from solar but lack a lot of shade. We can create a lot of additional electricity while increasing the existing functionalities of the areas beneath the panels by constructing new solar arrays in these existing locations.

Floatovoltaics are exactly what they sound like: floating solar panels. These installations make use of mounting that is specifically built to sit on bodies of water and has various advantages, including:

Reduced evaporation and improved water quality
Water cools the solar panels, allowing them to operate more efficiently.
Can be put in existing power plants on bodies of water.

The largest floating solar panel installation in the United States is located above a water treatment reservoir in a New Jersey town. Image credit: Solar Power World

Solar systems on canals are an alternative to floating solar installations. Thousands of miles of federally owned canals in the United States provide water for drinking, agricultural, and existing power facilities. Covering those canals with solar panels would result in not just massive amounts of new electricity generation, but also a significant reduction in evaporation in drought-prone areas. It’s a win-win situation that should be completed as quickly as feasible.

Agrivoltaics is the practice of placing solar panels on farmland to generate electricity while also improving farmer outcomes. Agrivoltaics, sometimes known as “solar sharing,” can be utilised to help boost crop yields, provide additional grazing land, and reduce water consumed to irrigate.

Solar panels generate shade, which benefits crops such as tomatoes and corn while also reducing watering requirements for crops such as chard, spinach and lettuce while keeping yields. Of course, the panels generate electricity, which powers the farm’s buildings and equipment while also lowering farmers’ energy expenses.

Building integrated photovoltaics and photovoltaic highway noise barriers, to a lesser extent, will offer solar power from locations where existing infrastructure will not be removed.

Last thoughts

Researchers are still researching new advances in solar technology, as well as how to best employ solar panels on reservoirs, canals, and agriculture. One of the most exciting aspects of working in the renewable energy field is getting to witness and read about all of the exciting breakthroughs that take place every day throughout the world.

However, these exciting new solar technologies that are genuinely important (and why they are important we have explained above) available today is sufficient to usher us into a fully renewable, electric future. The speed with which this occurs is solely determined by governments throughout the world’s desire to prioritise the construction of renewable energy generation, storage, and transmission networks.