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Solar Energy Efficiency - Low But Improving

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The adoption rates for solar power continue to be low and for good reasons - solar energy efficiency for solar panels still averages some 20%.

But new, exciting technologies provide hope. Nanotechology and more efficient concentrated solar technology are two interesting developments.

solar energy efficiency
Hope for improving solar energy efficiency when a large spectrum of the sun's rays can be used.
Image courtesy Idaho National Laboratory

Developments In Solar Energy Efficiency

Solar Panel Efficiency And Nanotechnology

Solar panel efficiency is really poor when it comes to lighting our homes. Using direct sunlight through daylighting techniques actually utilizes about 80% of the sunlight available and that is significantly more efficient than converting solar energy into electricity to run lighting.

The most intelligent way to utilize solar energy is to make use of direct sunlight through daylighting technologies such as the solatube daylighting system and passive solar home design and heating technologies. Then you can use the highest efficiency rated solar panels for the remainder of your electrical energy needs.

Scientists who work on solar panel efficiency research believe that the highest efficiency levels for solar cells using the current standard silicon building materials is 40%. New technologies have recently been developed that may result in solar panels with efficiency rates of up to 80% while at the same time lowering the cost of solar panel production and consequently lowering the retail cost of solar panels.

One specific new technology is being developed at the Idaho National Laboratory. The lab has come up with a novel folding solar panel that may reach efficiency levels of 80%.

The technology is nanotechnology. The surface of the panel material is printed with miniscule nano-antennae that capture infra-red radiation, which is what the sun puts out in abundance, and this infra red radiation is even available at night. Television antennas absorb large wavelength energy, so in order to absorb ultra-small wavelength energy (photons) they had to create ultra-small antennas.

The material is reasonably easy to create, and scientists are confident that it could be scaled for mass production. However, there is currently one hurdle to overcome: there's currently no way to capture the energy being created.

So, while there are electrons pouring out of the nano-antennas when exposed to the sun, there is no way to capture or collect those electrons. The team in Idaho is working on the problem already. By putting a tiny capacitor, or AC/DC converter in the center of every tiny antenna, they think they can make this new kind of solar panel export all that energy it's created without raising the price, or lowering the solar power efficiency too much.

Read more about The Idaho National laboratories' work on solar cells and nanoparticles here.

Concentrated Solar Efficiency Project

Concentrated solar is another technology under development. This technique uses lenses or mirrors in combination with solar tracking systems to focus the sun’s energy to boil water. The steam is then used to power turbines to produce electricity. There are several concentrating solar electric utility plants under construction or beginning service. Concentrated thermal solar promises to be much more efficient and cost significantly less than photovoltaic systems.

Developed by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology a spinoff company called Technique Solar will begin producing a concentrated solar array. Each module will consist of nine "troughs" that have a concentrating acrylic lens and reflective walls to focus the sun's rays onto a strip of PV cells. This will allow them to reduce the number of cells required for each module by 75%.

The heat exchanger under the cells will be used to generate heat for circulating water and storage tanks for a hot water system. The system will include a motor drive mechanism with a tracking sensor to follow the sun. The company states this system will supply both hot water and electricity at one quarter of the cost of a conventional PV solar array system. These figures apply to the total energy output for hot water and electricity. It is not a direct comparison for electricity output only.

You can read more about the company Technique Solar and its development here

The future looks promising for more and more efficient solar energy options. But even now, solar helps us to reduce fossil generated electrical usage and any opportunity to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel generated electricity is a step in the right direction for a healthier environment and healthier economy.

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