As crazy as it sounds, one of the main factors holding back more solar panel installations is their unsightliness. In the United States, a lot of pride is connected to our homes. We want our green lawns. We don’t want black slabs on our roofs.
But the industry wants to start giving consumers what they want – and translucent solar panels are on the way.
Scientists first began talking about the potential for transparent luminescent solar concentrators (TLSC) back in the 1970s. But renewed demand for solar is moving the technology forward today.
A High School Science Experiment
Nearly everyone learns about the basics of TLSC technology in high school. The sun radiates energy in the form of invisible ultraviolet and infrared light, as well as the light we see.
Well, these clear solar cells are designed to capture the energy from these invisible parts of the spectrum and allow all other light to pass through.
A TLSC consists of organic salts contained in a thin sheet of material that absorb ultraviolet and infrared light. These salts then luminesce as another wavelength of infrared light. This emitted infrared light is then guided by tiny plastic chambers to the edge of the material where thin strips of a conventional photovoltaic solar cell convert it into electricity.
Silicon Valley startup Ubiquitous Energy and Dutch scientist Dr. Michael Debije from the Eindhoven University of Technology, among others, are very close to perfecting TLSC.
The Potential Is Clear
On top of the clear and unobtrusive panels, another key selling point for this new way to capture solar power is that it’s cheaper to make than conventional solar panels. No vacuum chamber or high heat is required to make them.
Scientists at Ubiquitous say they’ll soon have a TLSC that will achieve efficiency above 10%. This doesn’t seem impressive when you consider that current solar panels have an efficiency of up to 20%.
But these panels will be able to be installed just about anywhere that glass is. Think of all the windows that surround us every day. Entire skyscrapers could be generating solar energy.
In fact, Dr. Debije is using large luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs) to line the A2 highway in the Netherlands. They’re serving a dual purpose as noise-canceling barriers and power generators. The panels also come in different colors for this project. The red and yellow panels look similar to stained-glass windows.
Dr. Richard Lunt of Michigan State University and co-founder of Ubiquitous was the lead scientist in the development of this technology.
“It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way. It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader,” says Lunt. “Ultimately, we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.”
There’s only one problem holding back development of this technology at the moment.
Startup companies getting into this sector are having trouble getting access to capital. That will make it hard to compete against the established solar panel companies.
Hopefully, Silicon Valley will step up. Better yet, maybe Google or Apple will.