In a previous blog post, I wrote about the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which funded projects in an effort to reduce the total installed cost of solar energy systems to $.06 per kWh by 2020—a 75% decrease from the cost in 2010. Thanks to the work of these projects, the initiative has just three years later reached 60% of its target goal, with the average price now at $0.11/kWh.
The SunShot Initiative’s success not only proves the viability of solar technology, but provides the positive momentum needed to work even harder to ensure that these investments more than pay off. New technologies are popping up every day that have the potential to push solar energy to the point of being a feared market competitor. Below are a few innovative technologies that have me feeling optimistic about a future where this is the case:
- Solar orbs. A German architect has taken standard solar photovoltaic panel technology and supplemented it with a giant glass orb capable of concentrating and diffusing light onto a focal point. Known as “Rawlemon,” the technology—which looks like something straight out of a science-fiction movie—is equipped with a light-tracking system that allows the unit to reach a maximum theoretical efficiency up to 70 percent more efficient than solar panels alone. Not only can the Rawlemon orb concentrate enough light to be effective on cloudy days, it can also generate small amounts of electricity from moonlight. To date, the Rawlemon project has successfully raised more than 80% of its crowdfunding goal to help with commercialization.
- Solar fabric. Scientists have been trying for years to integrate solar technology into fabrics that can be draped or worn. Such textiles could provide us with the ability to power our own electronics or monitoring medical devices or even be wrapped around communications satellites or spaceplanes. Although researchers have yet to develop a solar textile with acceptable efficiency and low cost, university researchers in China have made some progress in bringing solar fabrics closer to reality.
- Solar paint. The University of Alberta is one of many research teams trying to scale-up manufacturing processes for nanoparticle-based solar paints. Today’s solar paints do not yet exceed 1% conversion efficiency and will need at least ten times that amount to be considered a worthy competitor in the solar energy generation market, but they are currently manufactured with materials that are not prohibitively expensive or scarce like those used by solar panels. In addition, solar paint could theoretically lower installation costs by enabling property owners to paint a surface themselves rather than pay for installation by trained professionals.
- Solar roadways. Inventors Julie and Scott Brusaw have been developing solar roadway technology since the mid-2000s; a project that has recently attracted attention from several media outlets for raising more than twice their goal of $1 million in crowdfunding. The inventors estimate that if all of the roads in America became solar roadways, it would generate three times the amount of energy than is consumed in the United States. Combined with smart grid technology, solar roadways could simultaneously generate electricity and communicate information. While the price tag to replace all U.S. roads with solar roadway technology at this time would be a prohibitively expensive $56 trillion, the invention of solar roadways has no doubt captivated an international audience and invited a fresh new perspective on the generation of solar energy.
The innovation taking place in the solar industry is encouraging, but there is still much work to be done. To capture the full potential of this renewable resource, we must continue to push for an increase in adoption rates of solar energy technologies through commercialization efforts, advancing hardware performance, integrating installations with the electrical grid, and growing the next-generation workforce. Our country has the potential to surpass the SunShot Initiative’s 2020 goal as long as we remain attentive to emerging solar technologies and support their potential to be major game changers.