Current and Future Solar Tech
Harnessing the power of the sunBy Maria Kanevsky, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
Solar energy is one of the fastest-growing forms of energy in the country. These days, solar arrays can be spotted in fields and on rooftops, and North Carolina’s electric cooperatives currently maintain 19 community solar farms around the state, allowing members to subscribe to the energy output from a panel or panels.
Using power from the sun is an ancient practice, although harnessing solar power in the form of photovoltaics to produce electricity is a relatively recent discovery. Throughout the 1800s, various scientists worked to improve the basic photovoltaic cell that created the basis for the modern photovoltaics in use today.
The space age in the 1950s and 1960s saw a slight increase in production of solar photovoltaics to power spacecraft, and an oil shortage in the 1970s brought more awareness to alternative energies.
Over the last century, the efficiency of solar cells’ ability to generate electricity has been improving. Early solar cells had an efficiency of about 4 percent in the late 1800s, advancing to approximately 11 percent in the 1950s. Modern solar cells have an efficiency of around 15 to 20 percent.
Although photovoltaics are currently the most popular form of solar technology, there are other of solar technology available — some established, some more experimental, listed here:
1Concentrating solar power. Uses thousands of mirrors to concentrate solar energy to traditional steam turbines or engines to generate electricity. This type of technology needs to be located on about 500 acres of land to be cost-effective.
2Solar heating & cooling. Collects thermal energy to be directly used for water heating, space heating and space cooling across many applications.
3Floating photovoltaics (FPV). More experimental at this point, this technology uses solar panels that are fixed on top of a buoyant structure in a body of water. While there also may be a huge potential to expand FPV out into the open ocean, the costs of these projects are much higher to install and maintain.
4Printable solar cells. Paper thin, these can be used almost anywhere. Instead of silicon that is used in conventional photovoltaic cells, these printable cells break down organic semiconductor polymers into “solar ink” on a plastic film, which can then generate electricity from light. There are still some major issues to solve before the technology can be commercialized, including a lifespan of only six months and an efficiency of 10%.
As these newer forms of solar technology develop and become commercially available, we will likely see many more kinds of solar technology around us.