Innovative Technologies Developing Solar Power

illustration by Maria Fonseca

Solar energy has been making great strides in moving towards business models that have better returns on investment.  While solar power does still need to improve its costs, there is significant potential in this area to deliver energy, drawn from the sun. Nowadays solar energy only accounts for one percent of the world’s energy consumption in the whole world. With the development of new technologies this percentage can increase dramatically, which could benefit us all.

The following video, done by Euronews, reviews the innovations happening in the solar power sector, that promise to revolutionize this sector, by lowering its costs:

Semprius – ultra efficient concentrated photo-voltaic cells

A company working in this sector is reported by Kevin Bullis (2014), that writing for the MIT Technology Review mentions how startup Semprius developed solar cells that have the ability to break records. The technology has reportedly been developed in Durham, North Caroline and it is argued that the next generation of this particular power unit will:

“Make solar power the cheapest option for utilities installing new power plants.”

In fact it is argued that this would be cheaper than today’s least expensive option of installing a new natural gas plant. This innovative technology was invented by the lab of John Rogers, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois. It’s principle is based on the idea of increasing the amount of energy gathered by a solar cell by putting lenses in the cell to focus light into it. Semprius has already raised $45 million from its investors according to Bullis. It has achieved record levels of being able to convert energy from sunlight into electricity. However, despite its successes to date, Bullis explains that the project has financial challenges. It has to increase the production of solar cells from sufficient to produce six megawatts per year to cells that can produce 200 megawatts. As a short term measure it is raising $40 million from investors, including current investors, but the problem is that the existing investors cannot afford to keep bailing the company out. The company needs proper investment, and soon to avoid it failing according to Bullis.

One of the problems is that some solar projects in the past have failed to deliver hoped for achievements. For example, Solyndra was a project that raised $1billion from venture capitalists and a further half billion from the US government (Bullis, 2014). There was a time, according to Bullis, before the economic depression, where everyone wanted to invest in solar, but nowadays that is simply not the case. Semprius needs considerably less than Solyndra but is failing to get the attention that it needs.

One of the things that makes the Semprius development so special in the eyes of Bullis is the fact that it uses a type of stamp that allows “concentrated photovoltaics” to be used. This is not a new idea but Semprius has managed to utilise this technology with solar cells that are very small. Bullis describes how the stamp enables the solar cells to be collected and arranged in such a way that they can be paired with lenses to be able to create solar power in a manner that is very efficient. The fact that the cells are smaller is beneficial in a number of respects according to Bullis (2014), not least because they do not need much material to produce and so they can be made of more expensive materials that are more efficient. Bullis also purports that these dissipate heat well and work in concentrated sunlight. The organisation would like to be able to make another advancement based on stacking the solar cells on top of one another. It will only be able to do this if it can survive until next year.

According to Bullis, one of the problems that Semprius faces is that traditional solar panels made of silicon are starting to become cheaper and more efficient. A lot of innovation is happening in this field, and some even venture to say that silicone is outdated. Yablonovitch that has researched photovoltaic cells since 1979 at Exxon, mentions new materials like gallium-arsenide, that can absorb a thousand times more strongly than silicon, and can be extremely thing.

All this advances are challenging Semprius that even though has the possibility of producing something far more effective in the longer term, it is hard to get the attention of those that have the power to influence… by providing funds.

But Semprius is not giving up without a fight. The organisation is trying to gain investment from interested parties in countries where solar power really is a possibility. It has already targeted Saudi Arabia, Mexico and China and may have a possible investor in China. It is hoped that such an investor, or investors can help Semprius to achieve everything it is capable of doing. After all the organisation could have the potential to be able to achieve something very big. Semprius just needs investors to see past the challenges that other solar projects have faced, and convince investors that it is able to do what it says it is going to do. As the CEO puts it:

“Our customers and partners – everybody says we live up to what we say we’re going to do. That convinces our current investors that if we can get through this valley of darkness, there’s an opportunity at the end.”