Transparent solar panels: The future of solar energy?
Energy is the pulse of our day-to-day life – how we create and use it is changing rapidly. One thing is certain, to limit global warming we need to move away from fossil fuels altogether and embrace sustainable energy sources. Solar power technologies have been developing for decades, and modern solar power could now become a viable alternative to fossil fuels, but it doesn’t come without its flaws. Solar panels can only be placed at certain angles on buildings, significantly reducing the amount that can be installed in towns and cities. There are also concerns that solar farms can affect biodiversity and farmland and natural habitats need to be safeguarded. But what if these limitations in built up areas were removed? Scientists have been developing transparent solar panels that could be the answer to these issues...
What is transparent solar energy?
Transparent solar is a cutting-edge technology that gathers and uses light energy through windows or any glass surface regardless of the angle. This technology has the potential to be a game-changer in terms of broadening the scope of solar energy.
Researchers have been experimenting with different methods of transparent solar technology, however, the majority work more as a transparent solar concentrator. This means they absorb specific UV and infrared light wavelengths that aren’t visible to the naked eye and transform them into energy capable of powering electronics. This is known as photovoltaic glass and is manufactured to provide a ranging level of transparency.
In 2014, a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) developed an entirely transparent solar concentrator which could convert almost any glass sheet or window into a PV cell. By 2020, scientists in the US and Europe have achieved 100% transparency levels for solar glass, bringing the possibility of efficient solar power closer.
The advantages and disadvantages of transparent solar energy
With the need for more methods of sustainably generating electricity, transparent solar panels seem like a perfect solution. However, like most innovations, they don’t come without their own flaws. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of using transparent solar panels:
The prevalence of glass
Transparent solar panels are incredibly important as glass is more or less everywhere. Ranging from the screen of our phones to skyscrapers in cities, it’s estimated that there are between 5 to 7 billion square metres of glass in the US alone. Imagine the sheer amount of energy that could be generated if we can tap into that. Cities would become sustainable and self-sufficient with the energy needed for buildings generated by the buildings themselves!
Proof of the technology’s effectiveness
Transparent solar technologies are already popping up around the world. The Copenhagen International School’s design uses 12,000 hued but clear solar panels all over the building, producing 200 MWh of energy annually – more than half of the energy the building consumes. In another example, 100-square-feet transparent solar glass panels were installed above the entryway to the Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building on the campus of Michigan State University. They generate enough electricity to power the lighting in its atrium.
However, more research and development needs to be done as there are some significant obstacles. Before the technology can be scaled up, scientists need to improve its efficiency as there is currently an efficiency/transparency trade off. The more transparent a solar panel is, the less efficient it is in generating energy. On the other side of this, the more transparent a panel is, the more panels can be installed by replacing the glass on buildings. Arguably, a similar amount of solar energy could be generated as although the panels would be less efficient, there would be more of them than traditional panels, balancing out the scales.
The future of transparent solar energy
Transparent solar panels have the power to revolutionise solar energy globally. However, there is still a long way to go before the technology can be up scaled and reach its full potential. Scientists need to improve the panels efficiency and solve the issue of transparency/efficiency trade off. Once this issue has been resolved the door to fully sustainable and self-sufficient cities in terms of energy production and usage can be opened.
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