Take some ordinary two-dimensional solar panels, stick them together to form a crazy looking three-dimensional solar tower that resembles an abstract sculpture of an accordion, and voila! If you are part of the intrepid team of researchers from MIT who dreamed up that arrangement, you have just boosted the overall efficiency of the solar panels by up to 20 times, and in the process you have caused thousands of solar power researchers around the globe to smack their heads and wonder why they never thought of that.
3-D solar plays the angles
Actually, at least one company has already begun to exploring the 3-D approach, in a way. Last year CleanTechnica reported on the California firm Solar3D (what else?), which has a prototype under development for a 3-D solar cell. Last week the company announced that its simulations indicate the new cell “can produce 200% of the power output of conventional solar cells.”
That’s great, but it’s a different approach than the road MIT is taking. From the outside, Solar3D’s solar panels look like – well, like regular solar panels, only a bit thicker; the 3-D effect is on the inside. The company also hopes to integrate its technology into solar roof tiles, which would be a bit impractical with MIT’s configuration.
MIT’s 3-D solar tower
The MIT team, headed by Associate Professor of Power Engineering Jeffrey Grossman, has come up with a truly 3-D arrangement of solar panels that consists of blocks or towers. The research first came to CleanTechnica’s attention last November with the announcement that the team’s 3-D tower could generate almost as much solar power on a cloudy day as when the sun is shining. Now the team has published a study in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that details its results, based on tests of three different configurations.
Minuses and pluses of 3-D solar power
The researchers note that the tower itself would require more panels to cover the same footprint as an ordinary 2-D configuration, which would make it more expensive. On the positive side, the 3-D arrangement enables the solar tower to capture sunlight at optimal angles throughout much of the day without the need for a mechanical sun-tracking system. That saves money on installation costs, maintenance and whatever energy is needed to run the system.
According to MIT writer David Chandler, the ability of a 3-D module to function with a relatively uniform power output regardless of the weather or the seasons is also of value in terms of integrating distributed solar energy into the grid.
Cheap solar power, the 3-D way
Assuming that the price of solar cells continues to drop while the expense of a sun tracking system and other components remain relatively stable, the use of extra panels for a 3-D configuration will become more cost effective.
Shipping and installation have a significant effect on the total cost of solar power, and the team also took that into consideration. The concept is for a unit that can be
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
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. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.