The solar energy multiverse continues to grow

For all the activity in the solar energy market, PV technology has only just begun to hit the global economy with full force. Huge solar arrays filled with rows of super-efficient silicon solar panels are just part of an expanding universe. With that in mind, here are 4 new developments that could rev up the slow pace of change.

1. Distributed solar energy

Distributed renewable energy is a big deal for the US Department of Energy and other solar energy planners, but it doesn’t generally get the media spotlight. This is because they are rather small. On an individual basis, distributed energy resources range down to the kilowatt range. They are easily dwarfed by huge multi-million megawatt PV arrays.

However, when distributed resources are summed, the results can be startling.

The latest example comes from New York state, where Gov. Kathy Hochul just announced a new distributed solar program that targets 10 gigawatts by 2030.

The public-private plan is significant because it builds on NY-Sun’s successful PV affordability program, which aims to fill a huge, gaping hole in the tiny solar market that limits access for much of the economy.

If all goes according to plan, the expanded NY-Sun program will provide at least 1,600 megawatts of solar power boost to disadvantaged communities and low- to middle-income households in New York State by 2030.

The plan also includes a commitment to allocate at least 450 megawatts to Con Edison’s New York City and Westchester County service area and an additional 560 megawatts to Long Island through the Long Island Power Authority. If you have any idea how they’re going to squeeze thousands of new PV modules into a region already oversaturated with infrastructure, drop us a note in the comments thread.

As for the cost of the expanded NY-Sun plan, the Office of the Governor expects the median budget bill to increase by just $0.71 a month.

2. More good news about solar energy with perovskite

Both the cost and site aspects of the NY-Sun solar energy plan could be turned on their head by new organic thin film technology in the next few years, but in a positive way. Unlike stiff, bulky silicon solar cells, thin film is lightweight and flexible, offering far more opportunities to collect solar energy on top of existing infrastructure.

Thin film is also relatively cheap. The “organic” part of the name refers to the use of carbon polymers, also known as plastics. Manufacturing and application costs are also a factor. Thin film can be mass produced and sprayed, painted or printed onto surfaces, both of which help reduce the total installed cost of solar energy.

In the absence of such a thing as a free lunch, previous iterations of thin films did not come close to the solar energy conversion efficiency of silicon solar cells.

More recently, researchers have developed a number of record-breaking twists on the technology. This includes the use of perovskites, a class of sophisticated materials with superior optical properties. When the rough edges are ground away, perovskites can be used to increase the conversion efficiency of organic thin films.

The challenge for fans of the bio-perovskite tandem solar cell mashup is to get the two substances to work together. From a solar conversion perspective, it’s like trying to fit one piece of a puzzle into another.

Last month, a research team in Germany found a new solution to the organic perovskite problem. As reported by the University of Cologne, the researchers built their project on previous research that indicated that tandem solar cells are a promising avenue. In particular, they added an optimization to tandem cells that use organic semiconductors to harvest solar energy in the form of ultraviolet and visible light, and perovskite to harvest near-infrared light.

They achieved impressive results by inserting a nano-thin layer of indium oxide into the cell, and reported a solar conversion efficiency of 24% compared to a previous record of 20% for solar cells of this type.

That’s even more impressive considering that perovskites were first studied for PV applications in 2009, with a reported conversion efficiency of just 3%. That’s an incredibly fast rate of improvement for new solar technology.

3. Floating solar

Floating PV is another new field taking off like a rocket. As the name suggests, the idea is to float solar panels on a body of water, typically a reservoir or other man-made structure. Quarry ponds have become another target.

The floating solar field offers a solution to conflicts with agriculture and other land use problems. When connected to an existing hydroelectric dam, they can also use the existing transmission infrastructure. Builders are also attracted by the idea of ​​saving money on construction since there is no need to prepare the subfloor.

It looks like water treatment plants are next on the floating PV list. earlier this year, The time of India reported on one such project, which suggests there may be many more in store. Plant operators point out that placing the solar array on the untreated side of the array allows them to recycle the water used to wash dust and dirt off the panels.

The explosive growth of the offshore wind industry adds yet another twist, making it possible to place solar panels on the high seas.

4. Long-term energy storage

Energy storage is the key that unlocks the full potential of solar energy, but until now there is virtually no technology to store large amounts of solar energy for long periods of time. The go-to technology consists mainly of lithium-ion batteries that only provide a few hours at a time. That may fit many use cases, but a global economy that relies on intermittent power generation will require new technologies that enable storage across days, weeks, and seasons.

Much of the attention surrounding long-term storage of solar energy has focused on various forms of kinetic or gravity-enabled devices.

A different approach is illustrated by a team of researchers from Chalmers University in Sweden in collaboration with a team in Shanghai. Last month Chalmers reported progress on his “Molecular solar thermal energy storage systems’, which employs a shape-changing molecule.

5. The hydrogen compound

Of course, no mention of solar power is complete without considering the green hydrogen trend, where much of the activity involves harnessing solar or wind power to push hydrogen gas out of water. Hydrogen fuel cells have been slow to gain traction in the passenger car market, but otherwise there are many other ways to use sustainably produced hydrogen in the modern industrial economy, including agriculture and food processing, as well as medicines, toiletries and other commodities.

Hydrogen is also an energy storage enabler. Its role in this area could be expanded if the Chalmers project is successful, as the shape-shifting molecule at the heart of the MOST system is composed of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. It is activated by sunlight, which transforms it into a high-energy isomer of itself.

“The isomer can then be stored in liquid form for later use when needed, for example at night or in winter,” explains Chalmers University, adding: “Researchers have refined the system to the point that it is now possible to use the energy to store for up to 18 years.”

This is just a small sampling of the solar news splashing across the world CleanTechnica Radar every day. Global decarbonization is within reach. The only question is how quickly the world economy can switch to a sustainable model. Researchers and innovators do their jobs. Now is the time for policymakers to pursue them.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar energy conversion efficiency improved by new tandem perovskite solar cell (BEST plot courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory).




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