Guest Editorial: Invisible Solar – One Step Closer

solar windowsSolar panels on a commercial basis are proving incredibly popular – the number of very large installations is rising exponentially, such as the 8minuteenergy project, which received the go-ahead recently. These large scale solar panel systems have few downsides; they can provide a reliable source of green energy, produced very efficiently. These solar farms take advantage of generous government schemes, providing an incentive for landowners to invest in the renewable industry.

The technology in these solar panels has trickled down to the smaller, domestic level. Around the year 2000 was when a few people looking for their own personal solar panel installation started getting these systems placed on their houses. 

However, the rate of installation across most of Europe and the USA (with the notable exclusion of Germany – a long time world leader in solar) remained very low until roughly 2010, when generous grants kicked many households into action. Solar panels were still a sensible investment before this point, but they were never particularly popular hence never received much publicity.

Ask a random person in the street if they'd like solar panels and the chances are that they will say no, solely on the grounds of the appearance of the panels – they don't want their house to look like something that has fallen out of orbit! Pioneering scientists such as Professor Marc Baldo set out in 2008 to build solar panel windows – transparent solar modules which could double up as windows. These worked on the basis of directing light landing on the window to the edges of the frame where it could then be used generate electricity. However, 4 years later and the technology hasn't yet reached the common solar marketplace.

Whilst solar windows mean households could theoretically install solar panels with much greater subtlety, they have remained prohibitively expensive to manufacture, and there have been ongoing issues with the size of the windows – larger windows before now have not been able to operate efficiently as solar panels because much of the solar energy was lost as the light was concentrated towards the edges of the windows.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, based in the USA, has just made an exciting break-through. They can now make transparent photovoltaic (electricity-generating) modules 14 times larger than previously, reaching sizes of 26 square inches – big enough to function at least as a small window. These cells are made of a totally different material to traditional solar panels – instead of being based in silicon, the new modules can be made from polymers. These polymers are much, much cheaper to produce and can be sprayed onto a substrate so the manufacturing process for the panels has a dramatically reduced cost.

The potential for growth is now very exciting. If solar panel schemes have already lead to massively increased growth in the industry, then if the product itself can be made much more exciting and practical, solar panels could start to be included in new builds as standard. Whilst the majority of people now take it as given that global warming is an important issue, it still is not the case that most people bother installing renewable energy measures on their properties. If renewable energy can be made more exciting and less intrusive, then it can only help lead to a paradigm shift where this extraordinary technology makes solar panels an every day product.