Solar Organic Concentrators and Solar Gardens
As reported in The Economist, Science, and other publications, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a special kind of dye that can transform ordinary glass into a photovoltaic solar panel. Although this technology, known as organic solar concentrators (OSC), is still highly experimental, inspectors may soon find windows doubling as solar collectors.
OSCs utilize windows as collectors, directing light energy to solar cells in the window frames. To accomplish this, a special dye is affixed to the surface of a piece of the glass, which is then exposed to a light source. The dye absorbs incoming light and re-emits it inside the glass, where it bounces along until it reaches the edge. There, awaiting the absorbed light, is a thin layer of solar cells, which converts the light into electricity. The bouncing of the light is described by a principle known as “internal refraction,” which is the same phenomenon that keeps light trapped in optic fibers.
This design is essentially an evolved form of an idea that was abandoned in the 1970s, known as luminescent solar concentration. These early experiments failed because collected light was absorbed before it reached the edges of the glass (or plastic) plates. The MIT team solved this problem by adding a small concentration of dye that collects the absorbed light from its surrounding dye. They also introduced a new class of dye molecules, known as molecular phosphors, which are exceptionally transparent to their own light emission.
This innovation offers a contrasting approach to traditional solar concentrators, which use mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto solar panels. These devices are large and expensive, which limit their utility. Specifically, they rely on bulky sun-tracking mirrors that aren’t feasible in most residential settings. OSCs perform the same function as solar concentrators, but they lack the problems that make their predecessors cost-prohibitive and unwieldy.
The solar concentrating dye can also be applied to existing solar cells, enhancing their light-capturing ability by as much as 30%. MIT engineer Marc Baldo, quoted at TheHotSpring.com, said, “We think that, ultimately, this approach will allow us to nearly double the performance of existing solar cells for minimal added cost.”
The team has founded a company called Covalent Solar, which plans to commercialize the technique and market it to homeowners and businesses within the next three years. Of course, the opinions of the researchers may be biased, as they also plan to profit from the sale of the technology. But if these dye-based solar concentrators can truly replace conventional solar collectors, and they become widely distributed, they could revolutionize the role of solar power in the global energy economy.
For now, the team must deal with technical complications, some of which are described below:
- The dyes would degrade natural lighting by preventing 90% of sunlight from entering the room. Windows dyed in this way would appear as smoked glass, which some may find objectionable.
- If too much dye is used, some of the light may be re-absorbed before it reaches the solar cells.
- Currently, the devices are not stable for a long enough period to be ready for mass production. Researchers tested one model and found that it was only effective (up to 92% performance) for three months. The next design will incorporate technology developed for organic light-emitting devices to increase longevity.
FYI, OSC technology may revolutionize the way homes and businesses receive their energy.
Colorado renters, low-income residents and homeowners who live in the shade will find it much easier to participate in the generation of solar power, pending the passage of new legislation HB 1342. At the end of March 2010, a compromise was forged between Colorado House Rep. Claire Levy and the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (CoSEIA) that would legalize the use of community-owned solar arrays, known as solar gardens, in communities statewide.
Currently, homeowners must install solar arrays on their own properties in order to qualify for subsidies and net metering. The new House bill allows people to buy into nearby solar arrays and receive credits from the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy. Each customer would then own a share in the solar garden, but would still be consuming standard grid power; the energy produced by the solar gardens would be used to offset the electrical consumption of its owners. And, as with investment in any form of solar energy, solar garden owners could be faced with a slightly higher energy bill.
The bill will empower residents who, for various reasons, are unable to support a rooftop solar array. By expanding the solar market, the bill will also help remove a major obstacle to goals set by federal and state lawmakers concerning energy consumption. Specifically, the legalization of solar gardens will help Colorado reach the goal, signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter, requiring that 30% of the state’s electricity be generated by renewable energy sources by 2020.
The bill has opponents, however. Some activists fear “energy sprawl,” or the loss of open space to large, ground-mounted solar arrays. Renewable energy expert Tom Konrad told the Boulder Weekly, “Any law which makes solar more likely to be ground-mounted than rooftop is a step in the wrong direction.” Local solar installers, too, feel threatened that the new legislation will permit large and more economical installations to eat into their market share. At issue specifically is language in the bill that may force them to compete with solar gardens for public funds. Levy rejected some of the concerns of local installers, saying that they “seemed more concerned about protecting their market share than expanding the use of solar energy in the state.”
Colorado is not alone in its efforts to promote solar gardens, which have become known as “solar shares” in California, and have cropped up in communities across Utah and Massachusetts. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) recently introduced the Solar United Neighborhoods (SUN) Act of 2010, which would extend the perks of the recent Colorado bill to the entire nation.