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Improvements in Solar Panels can lead to a Sustainable Future

In the drive towards making the country greener and more sustainable, renewable energy is the future. This is demonstrated by the Government’s commitment to generating 30% of the energy share from renewable sources by 2020. There will be more tidal energy, wind turbines and of course, solar panels supplying the power that keeps the lights on.

Solar panels have shot up in number in recent years, both domestically and commercially. In fact, the Government aim to power 4 million homes through solar energy by eight years time. To achieve that target not only will the number of panels increase but also the quality and efficiency. Fortunately, some very clever people are constantly evolving solar technology…

How efficient are Solar Panels?

The average solar panel currently is around 15% efficient; meaning just 15% of the sunlight they receive is converted into electricity. Some high quality panels may reach nearer 20%. This may seem shockingly low but as always with stats they need to be put in context. Solar panels are converting 15% of something infinite and free (i.e. sunlight) into electricity at a cost that, even without any subsidies, could be returned with a decade. So while the 15% appears low, it means there is large room for improvement to make solar energy even more worthwhile. This should be easily manageable as the technology evolves.

The Improvements in Solar Panels

Solar panels are constantly improving. In recent years we have seen better materials, such as anti-reflection glass, which helps the panels capture more sunlight. There is also an increasing number building integrated PV (BIPV) panels in new buildings. Unlike traditional rigid, roof-mounted panels BIPV can be used in buildings as a facade or cladding, allowing architects to squeeze in more panels on every building.

Then this year Siemens claimed to have built a panel that is 33.9% efficient. Much of the improvement is aimed at the photovoltaic cell – the cell that actually converts sunlight into electricity. Mirrors and lenses were used to magnify the light before it hits the photovoltaic cell, increasing productivity. This is called Concentrated Photovoltaics or CPV. Improving the efficiency of the photovoltaic cell is one of the primary ways of developing solar technology. If CPV is found to be a durable way of doing this CPV could become common place.

There is a great deal of research going into developing solar technology. In only the last few days researchers from Princeton University claim to have created a new lattice structure that will help solar cells be 175% more efficient. Even NASA invest millions on solar as it is used to power space missions, including the International Space Station.

Another problem the experts are looking to combat is the fact the sun’s movement means solar panels are not always getting light, even when the sun is out. Experts are developing methods using mirrors to find ways to develop panels that ‘react’ to the sun’s movement so they will receive more sunlight.

Solar Improvements Hitting the Mass Market

Obviously, not all the improvements here will ever reach the mass market. Be it through too high costs or the fact it is simply not possible. However, it can be certain that the panels available to the consumer are constantly evolving and we can expect this to continue. Solar cells will improve in quality. For example, it is highly feasible the average solar panel in 5 years time could be 33% efficient. Just imagine every solar panel now being twice as efficient. This would be a monumental step towards that 2020 target and making the UK’s energy more sustainable.

Other improvement may take much longer to ever reach fruition; particularly, panels that can adapt to the sun’s movement. Yet, with the very best in the world, and in NASA’s case space, working towards a major breakthrough we can all still dream of that 15% hitting much dizzier heights. With solar- the sky is literally the limit.

Written by Michael Hallam

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