Innovations In Solar Technology

By: Anuj Kapoor

When people think of solar power, most of the time they think of the traditional, common solar panel technologies. These include the solar panels fixed into a rooftop, or the large arrays of solar panels in large open spaces. However, there are many newer solar technologies that will revolutionize the way we think about not just solar, but energy production in general. Solar panel technology no longer needs to take up so much space, and can even be personally designed to look the way you want!

In this article, I will introduce different technologies, some are already available for commercial purchase, while others are still in early research and development stages. Once these technologies are broadly available for use, the world will be generating energy like never before. Over the past couple of years, the cost of solar technology has decreased dramatically. The future of solar is amazingly ‘bright’ since these new technologies promise to deliver greater efficiencies at a dramatically lower cost. 

Fixed tilt solar panels: These are traditional panels that are most common for residential use. As you might guess from their name, fixed panels stay stationary at all times. That makes finding their optimal tilt angle absolutely vital to their overall productivity. Fixed-tilt PV systems use two separate angles that determine their orientation relative to the sun: the azimuth and the tilt. The azimuth specifies the compass direction that a tilted panel is facing. Most panels in the Northern Hemisphere are south-facing. The tilt is the angle from the horizontal ground. Most utility-scale fixed-tilt solar photovoltaic systems are tilted 20 degrees-30 degrees. Because they have no moving parts, fixed-tilt solar systems require little care other than an occasional inspection. 

Adjustable tilt solar panels: If you want to maximize your solar production, an adjustable mounting system may be a better choice for your home. These mounts allow you to shift the angle of the panel as often as you want, although most homeowners choose to do it seasonally, typically two to four times a year. When this adjustment is made correctly, adjustable panels can capture over 75 percent of the available solar radiation, assuming tree shading and other obstructions are not an issue.

Rotating tilt solar panels: Tracking systems move the panels throughout the day in order to keep them facing the sun. The longer they are aligned with the sun, the more energy they can produce. The surface can be rotated around each axis (tilted) to get the right angle for receiving the maximum sunlight. When movement or adjustment of the surface happens by rotating around one axis, it is called single-axis tracking. On the other hand, when the rotation of the surface happens around two axes simultaneously, it is called dual-axis tracking. These solar panels are used primarily in a commercial setting or with solar panels on the ground rather than rooftops due to the limited nature of rotating tilt that can be performed in a rooftop setting. 

Bifacial solar panels: One of the newest solar power innovations, projected to grow exponentially in popularity in the next few years is bifacial solar panels. Bifacial panels have solar cells on both sides. The front captures direct sunlight while the back absorbs reflected light. These panels are starting to be competitively priced, deliver greater efficiency, power production and can take up less space. Residential uses are most productive on light-colored surfaces. Bifacial solar panels work well as awnings or pergolas.

Image Credit: Solar Power World. Lumos Solar GSX bifacial modules

Anti-solar panels: Researchers from the University of California, Davis, have announced a new invention that could harness solar power at night. As made clear by their name, these anti-solar panels work in a way opposite to traditional ones. Current solar panels draw energy coming from the sun, while anti-solar panels use a phenomenon known as radiative cooling that uses heat radiating off the Earth’s surface and converts it into electricity. While this process doesn’t equal the amount of energy generated during the day, it is estimated that the devices could produce around 25% of the electricity that traditional solar panels do in the day. While this number may seem small by itself, this technology could represent a turning point in sustainable power as it represents a sizable increase in energy overall, since current systems don’t operate at all during the night.

Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV): This technology can seamlessly blend into building architecture in the form of roofs, canopies, curtain walls, facades, and skylight systems. This makes the technology aesthetically appealing rather than a compromise to a building’s design. It also enables homeowners to save on building materials and electric power costs, which makes it not only aesthetically appealing, but helps increase energy efficiency, improves high thermal and sound insulation and provides clean power output from the sun all while helping achieve a zero carbon footprint.

Solar skins: The MIT startup has created a “solar skin” product that makes it possible for solar panels to match the appearance of a roof without interfering with panel efficiency or production. Solar skins are a novel PV technology to integrate custom designs into solar panel systems. The solar skin technology is similar to the ad wraps displayed on bus windows. The sunlight falling on solar skins is filtered to reach the solar cells beneath it. As a result, it simultaneously displays the custom image and provides solar energy. These imprinted custom images, embedded into solar panels, can exactly match your grassy lawns or rooftops of your homes.

A comparison of a standard solar panel installation (L) and solar skins on top (R).  Image Credits: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) News

Solar fabric: Imagine that besides producing solar power at a fixed location, you could also do it while on the move through your own clothing. Researchers are developing solar fabrics with a vision of including solar power in each fiber. These solar filaments can be embedded into your t-shirts, winter coats, or any other clothing to help you keep warmer, power your phone, and provide energy for other needs while you’re on the go. 



Anuj Kapoor is a freshman at Lakeland High School in Shrub Oak, NY. He is passionate about the environment and enthusiastic about learning, contributing, and driving change in his community towards a more sustainable living lifestyle. 

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