TECH TRENDS — Solar Energy Part 2, Impact of Recent Advancements

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(Image by Jukka Niittymaa from Pixabay)

In last month’s article, we gave an overview on the current state of solar energy. This included a brief overview on solar energy, why it’s a viable option in our economy and how it has been used in the automotive industry. In this article, we will take a deeper look at the impact new advancements are making, and some of the emerging applications for solar energy.

Generating Solar Energy

In recent years, new technologies for generating solar energy have skyrocketed. 2016 was a big year for solar enthusiasts as Tesla revealed its new product, the Tesla Solar Roof Tiles. This ground-breaking invention promised a discrete, compact and economical solution for your home. Since then, we have seen improvements with Tesla’s third iteration of the Solar Tile roof with increased durability and lower costs than previous versions. In November 2020, Mississippi Power announced plans to incorporate Tesla Solar Roof Tiles in a new neighborhood development project called Enzor Place in Lauderdale County. Construction on 150 homes will start in early 2021 and will also include smart home devices. 

One example of the mass production of solar energy from rooftop solar is the Tesla giga factories, which manufacture Tesla vehicles. One of the newest factories includes 200,000 solar panels and will have the largest rooftop solar array in the world. Excess energy is stored in batteries for use during nighttime operations. 

Roofing is not the only place solar generation can be implemented. New paint additives allow paint to generate power from sunlight. There are three types of solar paint under development. One is a spray-on solar paint using Perovskite crystals, which can be applied while in a liquid state and creates a solar energy-generating layer. The second is a photovoltaic paint loaded with nanoscale semiconductors, which generate electricity (known as “quantum dots”). The oddest one is a solar paint that uses an exotic new substance, synthetic molybdenum sulfide, to absorb moisture in the air, and a common paint additive, titanium oxide, which breaks down the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be siphoned out of the paint layer and used to generate power: to wit, solar power creating hydrogen-based power.

Similar additives give the same ability to window-tinting films, which can turn glass office buildings into massive solar power plants. 

Storing Solar Energy

Solar energy is not without its flaws. Batteries are needed to store solar-generated power in order to use it during nighttime. On a residential scale, various companies such as Tesla have found solutions to this problem. The Tesla Powerwall stores up to 13.5kWh of power in a compact solution. This makes it ideal for a residential application. On a commercial scale, things get more complicated. Instead of a single household, storage is needed for possibly hundreds or thousands of homes and businesses. This opens up the opportunity for more inventive solutions that require more batteries, physical space and stronger connections to the power grid. Utility-scale solar energy storage facilities are springing up all around the globe and are replacing natural gas power plants, which are typically turned on and used to handle peak power loads. Technologies such as pumped-storage hydropower (PSH) and power-to-everything (P2X) provide much greater storage. 

PSH is a form of storage that converts electrical energy into potential energy. This is done by using excess energy to pump water up into a reservoir and, when energy is needed, that water is sent back down to power a generator converting the potential energy back into electrical energy. 

P2X transfers electrical energy into various other forms of power. A popular one is power-to-gas. These gases include syngas, methane or hydrogen. Hydrogen gas is a commonly used for energy storage due to its power density and its versatility. At peak solar generation times, excess solar energy can be converted to hydrogen through an electrolyzer, which breaks the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be stored in salt caves where it can be retrieved and converted back to energy using hydrogen fuel cells as fuel for hydrogen-based vehicles. 

Using Solar Energy

Solar energy can be used in a variety of ways, many of which we’ve covered, and you are no doubt familiar with. Some other lesser-known uses include powering remote locations such as ranger stations, providing power for firefighters and smoke-jumpers in the field and farming far from power outlets. Firefighters are routinely off the grid for days and weeks at a time fighting wildfires, but now they can set up solar panels and battery storage to create mini-power plants for their remote camps. Helicopters can be used to deliver solar panels and battery storage units wherever power is needed without requiring road access.

Farms have been using solar power since they became economically viable, to do such tasks as heating water and stalls for animals in the winter, powering temporary work camps and providing a green source of power in the summer. 

New fully autonomous container ships hitting the high seas over the next few years will be covered in solar panels and outfitted with batteries and electrical engines to navigate the seas.

Recycling of Solar Panels

A common problem faced when using solar energy is the difficulty of recycling the panels. A solar panel’s average life span is only about 25 years, which is surprisingly short considering they are intended as a long-term solution. If not disposed of properly, solar panels can leak tin and lead into the ecosystem, creating a major impact on the environment. The planet’s biosphere is incredibly damaged already, and there is a possibility solar power could do some harm to our ecosystem until recycling technologies improve. Nonetheless, the total environmental impact is a fraction of that of fossil fuels.

A global mandate should be enacted to require the efficient recycling of solar arrays, which could save billions of dollars this century. However, recycling is a very complex process, requiring disassembly of the panels, sorting the parts and extracting silicon, precious metals and rare-earth minerals. Fortunately, countries in Europe are taking the lead with this as they have already built a market around recycling solar panels. With some states in the U.S. already recognizing the importance of repurposing these panels, solar panel recycling will begin in earnest in the near future on our shores. Photovoltaic cells within solar panels contain valuable resources such as silver and nickel, which can be reused if economically extracted. 

Oregon Solar Car Team’s Use of Solar Energy

The Oregon Solar Car Team is a great example of the use of solar energy. This group researches, designs and builds technology in an effort to achieve a car that is as efficient as possible. They were fortunate enough to have new panels donated to them with the latest solar cell technology. Because of this, they’re breaking their own record in efficiency with these panels, capturing around 20 percent of usable light from the sun. Another example of how the solar car team optimizes efficiency is the battery storage system. Their solar array does not always produce a constant amount of energy, which requires the team to design the car to adapt using a pack of batteries. If the clouds cover the sun while the car is in use, there is still enough stored energy in the batteries to maintain power.

Next Up: Part 3 — The Future of Solar Energy

In our next article, we’ll delve into the minds of tech futurists to get a glimpse of what the world will look like with increasing adoption of solar energy and a world where most of our energy is derived from the sun and not from fossil fuels.

Find Out More

Oregonsolarcarteam.orgbit.ly/2020-Solar-Carsbit.ly/Audi-and-Apollo-Powerbit.ly/Solar-Cars

About the Authors

Max Cordell has been part of the Oregon Solar Car Team since 2017 and is currently Team Captain. He specializes in programming and electrical systems. In his free time, Max likes exploring new technologies and tinkering with electronics.

Katelyn Mawdsley is the Financial and Social Media Captain on the Oregon Solar Car Team. Katelyn plans to become a veterinarian and open her own practice. Some of her passions include composing poetry and exploring new places.

Preston Callicott is a “tech-humanist,” advocating for embedding the best of human ideals into all systems we create, especially those driven by Artificial Intelligence. He wants humans to control AI, not the other way around.

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