Photovoltaic panels: what we can expect for the future

 In Energy

Photovoltaic panels have always been thought as these dark blue panels with a silicon base, placed on residential roofs to convert sunlight into sustainable energy.

These traditional pv panels have some disadvantages and limits though, and researchers are studying new alternative technologies to open new possibilities to them.

However, before talking about the opportunities of photovoltaic panels in the future, let’s take a step back and see what photovoltaic panels are and how they work.

Difference between solar panels and photovoltaic panels

Many people confuse solar panels with photovoltaic panels because the two words are often used interchangeably.

They are actually both parts of the solar PV system, but they use different materials and technologies to produce electricity.

Solar water heating or solar thermal (SWH), commonly known as solar panels, are solar thermal systems which turn solar energy into thermal energy heating a fluid.

They are usually set on the roofs of the houses, to produce hot water for residential use.

Photovoltaic panels, or solar photovoltaics (PV) convert sunlight into electric power and when people talk about solar panels, they usually mean these particular kind

This happens because photovoltaic panels are the most popular ones and people tend to get confused and give them the most generic name of solar panels, rather than photovoltaic panels.

How do photovoltaic panels work

Photovoltaic panels are commonly set on the roof, for residential use. Modern technologies allow them to be part of the lighting system as well and they can be employed for example to power up street lighting system.

Photovoltaic panels are made by multiple cells working together and they convert sunlight into electricity at atomic level.

Photovoltaic cells are made in semiconductor material, which is often crystalline silicon. This material has a photoelectric property: when the sun energy hits it, it absorbs photons and releases electrons.

These free electrons are captured between the cell layers and are forced to travel around the cell, producing electric power.

Advantages and disadvantages of photovoltaic panels

Solar power is a very important form of alternative power. As all the other alternative power sources, solar energy and the photovoltaic panels which are used to produce it, have advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of photovoltaic panels

Advantages of PV panels are indisputable:

  • they provide clean energy, as they don’t create  greenhouse gas emissions while producing energy;
  • they use an endless energy source, the sun, which is supplied for free from nature;
  • they have few mechanical parts which can break, so they don’t require as much maintenance as other green energy systems;
  • they don’t produce noises so they are the ideal solution for residential use and for urban areas;
  • they are easy to install both on the roof or on the ground and they don’t interfere much with an urban skyline.

Disadvantages of photovoltaic panels

Despite the undoubted advantages, photovoltaic panels have some disadvantages as well:

  • As all the other forms of renewable energies, solar energy depends on natural phenomena; it is in fact intermittent and not 100% reliable because the sun doesn’t shine at night or when it is cloudy or rainy.
  • In order to be used on the power network, pv panels require some additional equipment (inverters) to turn the direct power into alternating power;
  • to provide a continuous supply of power, especially for on – grid connection, they need, as well as  inverters, storage batteries and this can increase the system costs;
  • land-mounted PV panel installations can require very large areas;
  • pv panel efficiency is lower than other green energy systems;
  • despite the low maintenance costs, the panels are still very fragile and can be easily damaged.

Cost of solar photovoltaic panels

Solar panels are expensive but certainly less expensive than they were in the past. Their current cost is still decreasing and it is expected to keep going down in the forthcoming years.

Therefore, pv panels can be considered an important opportunity from both an economical perspective as well as regarding environmental sustainably.

Moreover, their maintenance costs, as we saw before, are considered very small, compared to other forms of sustainable energy.

Thanks to the drastic reduction in their price in the past years, photovoltaic panels are the renewable energy system better promoted through government subsidies.

Government incentives in pv panels can make this form of energy an attractive investment for consumers.

New generation of photovoltaic panels: the challenge for the future

Photovoltaic panels have huge energy potentials: in just an hour the sun can produce enough solar energy to provide for all human needs for a whole year.

With the technologies available today, we are still very behind in capturing the huge amount of green energy available to us.

High efficiency photovoltaic panels: between scientific research and new projects

Researchers are still working on high efficiency photovoltaic panels trying to develop new technologies for the next generation of pv panels of the future.

Let’s see what are the latest development.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory research

In order to create the next generation of pv panels, Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are working to substitute the silicon crystal material, which is nowadays the most common material in photovoltaic panels, with perovskite.

This material has great potentials to make the panels more efficient and cheaper.

However the researchers team is working to solve the main problem of perovskite: it degrades in sunlight.

They understood that this degradation is an electronic process and that, if the electric charge reduces, the cells can be as efficient as before.

The trick is to allow the cells to “rest”, giving them a little time in the dark and at cooler temperatures, so that they can auto-heal and be efficient again.

This kind of panels are not ready yet, but hopefully they will be available in the near  future.

The George Washington University project

The George Washington University researchers started a partnership with the startup Semprius, the Naval Research Laboratory, tool supplier Veeco and the University of Illinois. Their aim is to innovate solar cells.

They created new panels which use lenses to drive solar energy into micro-scale solar cells. Through these lenses, the sunlight is concentrated and the solar cell material costs reduce.

The new materials allow saving money and reaching higher efficiency for the combined effects of solar cells and concentrated sun power.

At the moment  the limit of this technology is that it’s only capable convert direct sunlight and  it can only be employed in sunny areas of the world.

The team is working to improve the technology in order to reach new highs  in solar panel performance.

In-roof photovoltaic panels and much more: the TREASORES project 

A British partnership, working with a European framework, is studying new technologies to produce new solar cells. They are working to an Eu project, called TREASORES.

These are no longer large, fixed and silicon-based panels but they can be flexible and can be designed in custom shapes. They are actually flexible organic photovoltaic panels, that can be bend several times without reducing their efficiency.

These new panels are very lightweight because they don’t have the heavy glass layers and metal frames of traditional panels and therefore they are easy to transport and can be used in different conditions: not only as in-roof photovoltaic panels but also to provide electrical power in road work sites for instance or during disasters, open air festivals and many other circumstances.

This EU project, aims to develop this new flexible technologies further, scale their production and to reduce, in this way, the production costs.

There are actually no industrial standards to test the stability of flexible solar cells and their ability  to support repeated bending. Obviously this is still a limit for customer trust and to makes it more difficult to bring this technology to market.

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