The Future Of Solar Power: 16 Innovations To Check Out

In the last decade, the cost to install photovoltaic panels has decreased by over 60% and there are now more than a million homes in the U.S. that use solar energy to provide all or part of their power needs. 

But it doesn’t stop there…there are plenty of innovations on the horizon that will help make solar power even better for both residential and commercial customers alike, so let’s take a look at 16 innovations that you should be excited about!

  • Thin Film
  • Perovskite Solar Cells
  • Crystalline Silicon
  • Solar Windows
  • Solar Balloons
  • Nanowire Solar Panels
  • IR Spectrum Solar Panels
  • Solar Paint
  • Solar Cars
  • Solar Roads
  • Solar Desalination
  • Highway Noise Barriers (PVNB)
  • Solar Fabric
  • Solar Skin
  • Building Integrated PV
  • Floating Solar Farms

1. Thin-Film Solar Panels 

Thin-film solar panels are made by spraying an electronic chemical on a substrate (like glass or metal) and then adding another layer of semiconductor material to produce electricity. 

Thin-film panels have been around since the 1970s, but they’ve seen some recent improvements in efficiency that make them more attractive than ever before for residential solar energy.

A few advantages thin-film solar panels have over traditional solar panels are that they are lighter in weight and contain less silicon, which is better for the environment. 

How Much Do Thin-Film Solar Panels Cost?

Homeowners who want to install a new solar array will typically pay $200-$500 more for a thin-film set up as opposed to traditional silicon ones. This works out to about $0.50 to $1.00/watt, but the hope is to get the cost down to $0.70 for high usage.

So, while the cost of thin-film solar panels is higher than standard silicon panels, the price difference between the two has been shrinking in recent years. 

2. Perovskite Solar Cells

In less than 15 years, Perovskite Solar Cells (PSC) has increased from 3% to 25% efficiency. 

Perovskite Solar Cells are made of a mix of organic and inorganic compounds, which makes them lighter than silicon-based solar cells. They are also easier and cheaper to produce than silicon and have become the fastest growing solar technology in recent years.

One of the biggest perceived downsides to PSC is the use of lead, which has led to bans on building these cells in the UK and California. Still, this doesn’t stop China from leading in PSC production with a projected 40% of global capacity by 2020.

Scientists and manufacturers are starting to use Tin/Germanium-halide and Bismuth/Antimony-halides in place of lead and are having promising results…basically, man-made materials that don’t carry the hazards that lead does.

3. Crystalline Silicon

Crystalline Silicon has an overall efficiency of 15-20% and comes in two forms, mono-crystalline, and poly-crystalline. Because it is made of only one crystal, mono-crystalline cells are more efficient than their poly counterpart. 

However, what poly-crystalline lacks in efficiency it makes up for by being cheaper to produce and more sustainable. 

Since crystalline silicon is the oldest consistently used solar technology, it is often referred to as “traditional.” Since this technology has been around since the 1950s, it has had the most time to evolve. 

Mono-crystalline is more efficient than poly-crystalline by about 4-5%. But the mono-solar cells require purer silicon crystals in order to maintain their efficiency levels, thus raising their production and sale cost.

Cost about $0.75 per WattCost about $0.50 per Watt
16-20% Efficiency13-16% Efficiency

4. Solar Windows

Solar windows are made of transparent photovoltaic glazing that absorbs sunshine and converts it into electricity, which can then be used for any number of purposes like heating up a room or powering an electric device. 

Currently, there are two HUGE reasons solar windows are not an option for homeowners wanting to tap into solar energy: 

  • Very High Cost – Roughly $2000 for about 11 SF (compared to $124 for the same size traditional solar panel.) 
  • Very Low Efficiency – About 65 Watts (compared to similar-sized solar panels 194 Watts) 

Not a great combo BUT this is going to change. The technology is still fairly new and constantly being improved upon.  

A quick search about which companies are developing solar windows looks promising, while only two are actively producing them…Sharp and Energy Glass…several other startups are currently developing their take on the solar window, Physee, Ubiquitous Energy, and Solar Window. 

One of the start-ups is Solar Window in London, where a variety of different technologies are being developed and tested. The company behind these solar windows hopes to be able to bring its innovation into homes in the next few years. Their hope is to develop a commercially viable product that is lower in cost and meets or exceeds similarly sized traditional solar panel output. 

Solar windows open the potential to increase your solar array…and as a result, further reducing your carbon footprint…and offer a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to traditional solar panels.  

5. Solar Balloons

Another innovative way to generate solar power is by using a special type of balloon, called a Solar Balloon.

Solar balloons are inflatable chambers that float in much the same way as weather balloons do. When these balloons are filled with helium and exposed to sunlight, they can reach altitudes up to 30 kilometers, or over 98 thousand feet. At this height, the sunlight they collect is far more intense.

NextPV is a solar company that is experimenting with solar balloon technology. In their research, they have found that solar balloons could collect about 100 kilowatts of power for every square meter.

The next step in their research is to determine the best type and size of balloon, as well as how these balloons can be used beyond just generating electricity.

A team from MIT has been working on a way to use solar balloons for telecommunications purposes.

They are testing them by sending up a balloon into an area with no telecom coverage and using it as a base station of sorts to provide service in that region.

6. Nanowire Solar Cells

Nanowire solar cells have attracted a lot of attention in recent years due to their potential use as solar cells on satellites…and what better location for a solar array is there than in outer space?

Nanowire solar cells are made from the semiconductor gallium nitride (GaN). They have been shown to be much more efficient than conventional silicon-based photovoltaic technology, and they can operate at temperatures up to 600 degrees Celsius.

The cells are grown on an inexpensive substrate, which means they could be used to build solar panels much more cheaply than conventional methods of manufacturing. They also come in a variety of shapes and sizes, meaning that the potential applications for them would not only include satellites but potentially small electronics such as cellphones or laptops.

7. IR Spectrum Solar Panels

IR or infrared solar panels will be able to utilize the sun’s all-encompassing spectrum of energy by absorbing the infrared wavelengths that are currently wasted.

A company called LumiLite has developed a prototype for solar panels consisting of microchips based on copper indium selenide (CIS) semiconductor crystals, which in turn absorb light from both visible and infrared regions of the light spectrum. 

Current solar panel technology uses a light spectrum that is limited to the range of wavelengths between 300 and 1700 nanometers, while infrared light falls in the wavelength band below 700 nanometers.

Due to this limitation, solar panels can only generate a small fraction (about 20%) of their maximum potential energy yield.

IR spectrum solar panels have been shown to convert 40% of the incident infrared light into electricity.

8. Solar Paint

Solar paint contains titanium dioxide, a chemical that can be turned into an electrical conductor by adding water. After being painted on a surface, it generates electricity from solar rays the same way solar panels do. The paint costs about $200/gallon to make and lasts up to 25 years.

Solar paint is a lot more flexible than solar panels and can be used on items like the roof of your home or car. The end result is you’ll need less space to generate power from the sun for your everyday needs.

For the time being, solar paint isn’t a consumer-level product, mainly due to its incredibly high cost, but also because it’s still in the prototype phase.

Testing has been improving solar paint technology and so far there is an efficiency of 5%…currently, solar panels coming in at roughly 20% efficiency. In order to be considered commercially viable, a solar energy product needs to have at least 10% efficiency. 

Once solar paint does become a consumer-level product, it will provide solar energy without the need of mounting traditional solar panels and, in theory, should be a cheaper method of solar energy production.

9. Solar Cars

Solar cars can be vehicles that run exclusively off sun rays or that use solar power in addition to batteries and electrical power. Solar cars function in much the same way as standard photovoltaic solar panels on your home do.

Currently, the only cars that offer solar panels as an option are the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius…and they cost a pretty penny for that upgrade. For the DIYers out there, you could also try installing solar panels on your current vehicle.

The solar panels on the Prius and Leaf are largely used for supplemental systems like the air conditioning and the main power of the car still comes from charged-up electric batteries.

It’s unclear if solar-power cars will ever reach a point of becoming mainstream, but there are some who believe that they represent the future. Right now, there are a few factors that prevent them from fully catching on:

  • They Cost A Lot – Similar to solar panels, you pay a high upfront cost and don’t see the benefits until many years later as savings on fuel add up.
  • No Sun, No Power – Just like standard solar panels on your home, if you have a long stretch without direct sunlight then the solar car has very little to draw power from. This is the reason most current solar cars only use solar panels for supplemental power.

10. Solar Roads

Solar roads use solar panels to generate power as vehicles drive over them. Solar Roadways is a company out of Idaho working on converting traditional asphalt and concrete surface streets into conduits for transmitting electricity.

Ideally, solar roadways would produce enough energy to power entire cities and possibly the whole country, but there are three major obstacles that need to be overcome.

  • Cost – Upgrading all of our roads to solar will be an expensive undertaking.
  • Durability – It’s unclear if a surface made out of solar panels would actually hold up over time.
  • Maintenance – We’ve had many decades to troubleshoot and come up with better ways to repair standard asphalt roads, adding in solar technology will increase the difficulty…and expense…exponentially.

In order to find out if solar roads are viable in the long term, they’ve been installed on a trial basis at Testa Drive in Sandpoint, Idaho where you can drive over them like any other road surface and see what happens…time will tell but so far the results look promising!

Solar Road in Dubai

11. Solar Desalination

Freshwater can be obtained through boiling salty or dirty water processed by a still. Solar energy heats the water and converts it to steam, separating salt and impurities that are then collected in order to produce fresh water

The process of solar desalination is a renewable, efficient, and clean way to provide water for our everyday needs.

Desalination plants are expensive to build due to their size and need for constant maintenance…but as the population grows with more people moving into urban areas where there isn’t enough fresh water readily available, it’s possible that solar desalination plants will be a viable option.

The water from these plants is clean and safe to drink, so it could provide relief for the more than 780 million people worldwide who don’t have easy access to fresh drinking water. 

Solar desalination does come with some drawbacks, mainly that they are expensive when first constructed due to the size of the plant and they require constant maintenance.

12. Highway Noise Barriers (Photovoltaic Noise Barrier)

The purpose of a noise barrier is to reduce the amount of traffic and air pollution in an area. A solar-powered noise barrier would be able to do this by installing photovoltaic panels on top which could then produce electricity from light that hits them during daylight hours.

Solar power has less of an environmental impact, produces fewer emissions, and creates less noise pollution than a conventional power plant. Unfortunately, solar power requires solar panels (or similar) which take up a lot of room resulting in engineers coming up with more area to place them.

Another downside to the solar-powered barrier is that it would also create some light pollution which could have negative impacts on plants and animals in the area.

13. Solar Fabric

Solar fabric is made from a woven polymer that converts sunlight into electricity. The process of generating power in this way can be seen as the next generation of solar panels since it’s an all-inclusive system with no need for bulky cells and thick glass to generate energy.

It has been shown that when used in tents, these fabrics can generate enough power for basic needs like charging a cell phone or powering an electric light.

This technology may be the future of solar energy as more people move to urban areas and there’s less need for space on rooftops, which is where traditional panels are normally installed. 

The drawback with this technology is that it’s still expensive to manufacture, and the power generated is still low.

14. Solar Skin

Solar skin is a thin, transparent material that’s very efficient at producing an electrical current when it’s exposed to sunlight. Solar skin could be applied to devices such as cell phones and tablets making charging as simple as placing them in direct sunlight.

While the current cost of solar skins is quite high, solar technology may be a cheap way to charge your smart devices in the future.

Efficiency is also fairly low, meaning users would have to place their device in direct sunlight for a long period of time before they could charge it which is counterproductive since the ideal time to charge your phone is at night when you’re sleeping…but this is also when there is no sunlight.

15. Building Integrated PV

Building Integrated PV (BIPV) is a building that has been constructed to generate solar energy. The integration of solar photovoltaic panels into the actual structure of buildings is an innovative way to generate power for our day-to-day needs without causing any harm to the environment or emitting carbon dioxide emissions. 

While this technology may be the future, it is currently the most expensive type of solar power to produce.

This technology may have a high cost but it allows for buildings to earn LEED credits and makes them more environmentally sustainable by generating energy on-site rather than relying on fossil fuels that must be shipped in from elsewhere.

What Are LEED Credits?

The LEED credit (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green certification that’s earned by building owners and developers who are committed to environmentally sustainable design. Successful LEED buildings are those that produce a minimum of 15% more energy than they consume.

Since some states and countries mandate requirements for how much renewable energy must be used, this could become the new standard in design to ensure green credentials.

16. Floating Solar Farms

Floating solar, sometimes called floatovoltaics, refers to a type of solar installation that floats on an artificial pond or lake. The solar panels are mounted on some form of structure that keeps them afloat.

Once again, the biggest drawback to Floating Solar Farms is the construction cost. On the plus side, since they are sitting on the water there are far fewer obstacles…trees, buildings, hills…that will block out the sunlight.

Floating solar farms are more environmentally friendly as they don’t require any freshwater or land area, and their construction doesn’t cause habitat destruction.

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