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Buildings Engineers at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are developing a solar water heater that also converts sunlight to electricity.

Published on January 25th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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Columbia Engineer Focuses on Affordable Solar Power

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January 25th, 2010 by  

Engineers at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are developing a solar water heater that also converts sunlight to electricity. Huiming Yin, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is developing a solar panel that could help put sustainable energy within reach of more U.S. households.  The system incorporates solar cells that have a conversion rate of 12 percent, which makes them a good deal less effective at converting sunlight to energy than some of the new technology on the market, but they have the potential to become a good deal more affordable.

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Rather than focusing on getting the highest solar cell conversion rate, Yin is concentrating on other factors that can make solar power more cost-effective and attractive to homeowners and other property owners.  To do this he combines two emerging trends in the solar industry: “integrated” solar panels that double as building elements, and “hybrid” solar systems that produce both electricity and hot water.

Integrated Hybrid Solar Panels from the Columbia School of Engineering

As reported by Larry Greenmeier in Scientific American, Yin’s system consists of a layer of solar cells and thermoelectric material, under which are plastic water tubes.  The tubes draw heat from the photovoltaic layer, which serves a dual purpose: they provide hot water to the building, and they also keep the photovoltaic layer cool enough to maintain a higher level of efficiency (solar cells usually lose efficiency when they get too hot).

The Next Step for Hybrid Integrated Solar Panels

The new panels are still in development, a project that is underway with Weidlinger Associates, an engineering firm with a long list of sustainable and LEED-certified projects under its belt.  First they’ll be tested at nearby Frederick Douglass Academy, a community partner of Columbia’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement. Students at the high school will help install and monitor the system.  Part of the challenge will be to ensure that the system can be integrated as a waterproof, fire resistant element of the roof.

Affordable Integrated Hybrid Solar

The time is ripe for integrated hybrid solar systems such as Yin’s.  Integrated solar panels can help reduce overall building costs, compared to constructing or renovating a building and then installing a freestanding solar array.  Integrated systems can also cut down on the need for zoning variances or special permits.  Even better, several states are beginning to pounce on solar hot water as one of the quickest and most cost effective ways to promote sustainable energy, which brings up the potential for homeowner rebates and other financial incentives (California just gave the go-ahead to a solar hot water incentive program).  It’s part of a larger trend toward fracturing monolithic energy markets into mini-elements, in effect turning individual buildings into freestanding power stations.  It doesn’t make everyone a winner, but it does put low cost energy within reach of many more property owners, whether a person, company, or organization.

Image: Hot water faucet by kevindooley on flickr.com

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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