New solar power technologies are hitting the market each year — either as a next-gen model of the existing types or as altogether new technology. Either way, the new options are lighter, more efficient, more affordable and definitely more aesthetically pleasing. In fact, some are downright eye-catching.
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Traditional energy-producing photovoltaic cells are one of two types. The first is called monocrystalline. They are typically more expensive, yet also more efficient. The second is called polycrystalline. These solar panels are less expensive and, you guessed it, less efficient. There is a third player in the game called thin film, and while it holds promise and comes at a low cost, it’s currently the least effective option of the three. Then there are some products that use these technologies in different ways, offering visual appeal as well as function. Here are some that have caught our eyes over the past few years.
Related: Are ultra-thin solar cells the future of solar energy?
Dragonscale solar shingles
This design grabbed headlines when Google installed it on its Bay View and Charleston East campuses in a dynamic leap towards becoming carbon free by 2030. The contoured look is created with glass shingles by Swiss company SunStyle. The resulting prisms reflect and capture light with high efficiency and the design is both fire and water resistant, adding a protective layer to the buildings.
Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSCs)
This isn’t new technology. In fact, DSCs, also known as dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC), have been around for decades. However, the process hasn’t been scalable due to stability concerns and light limitations. However, a recent breakthrough by a team of scientists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland may soon see the technology draping windows, greenhouses, glass facades, small device screens and more.
The technology converts artificial and natural light into energy, basically like photosynthesis. The research team expanded the possibilities with discovery of a way to harvest light from the entire visible spectrum rather than just a portion of it. This advancement led to dye-sensitized solar windows being installed in the SwissTech Convention Center. Although still less efficient than standard solar panel energy production, DSSC is one to watch.
ASCA organic transparent solar cells
Marjan van Aubel, a Dutch designer with several solar-based innovations under her belt, was selected to design the solar roof for the Netherlands Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. The project resulted in an entire roof that resembles stained glass streaming patterned natural light in through skylights in the roof. Not only do the organic transparent solar cells (OPV) provide renewable energy for the space, but designers can select which lights in the spectrum filter through. In the case of the Netherlands Pavilion, that meant allowing optimal sunlight for the many plants below.
“Not only does the solar roof power the Dutch biotope, it also filters Dubai’s sunlight to ensure the right spectrum of light enters the biotope for the plants to photosyntheses,” Van Aubel explained.
As we explained in another Inhabitat article covering the Expo, the pavilion is made from locally sourced materials, and van Aubel followed suit with organic, non-toxic options in her material selection for the solar panels. Additionally, the panels can be removed and reused at another site. She hopes the work not only represents the function of solar and the innovations within the field but presents the realization that function can exist hand-in-hand with art and beauty as represented with the Moiré effect in her chosen graphic design. Imagine if we all could install sheets of thin, natural materials that also provided energy to our homes.
The roof and open fields aren’t the only place we can install solar panels. With advances in the thickness, weight, efficiency and function, we can now use the walls of our home to achieve a similar effect. AVANCIS, a German firm that specializes in thin-film photovoltaics, has produced SKALA, a Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) system for facades. While it might look like a standard glass façade, a SKALA building offers expansive solar engagement and is highly efficient as a renewable energy option. SKALA is slowly gaining adoption around the globe.
Flexible monocrystalline solar panel
Companies like Renogy have developed a range of options for flexible solar panels that cater to a variety of needs. It’s an adaptable solution for boats, campers and many other off-grid options. Panels are equipped to power a range of wattage needs and can be linked together. Flexible solar panels are ultra lightweight and thin for easy transport and storage. They are easy to install with high flexibility that conforms to non-flat surfaces by using silicone adhesive, Velcro or mounting hardware. They are much less intrusive than standard, framed solar panels so they provide a streamlined look. Plus, they are wind, rain and snow resistant.
Solar roof tiles
Elon Musk made waves with his announcement Tesla would produce a new-age product of solar roof tiles. However, the rollout has been excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, a few other companies have stepped up to fill the void. Although still expensive and challenging to locate, solar roof tiles are an exceptional example of a product that works as both a roofing material and a solar panel, funneling energy into the home while protecting it at the same time.
Images via Pexels