Solar is the future, right? Flying cars, clean water the world over, and gleaming towers of city and glass that jut unceremoniously into the sky. Science fiction promised us a lot, and while we can’t sit in endless sky traffic just yet, we are making great strides towards powering our businesses and homes with the energy of the sun.
Yes, Helios’ great golden chariot may soon be a viable option for brewing your morning tea. Still, as is often the case, nature stands between us and our lofty visions. Solar energy is a brilliant solution until it’s winter, or cloudy, or dark out. You could argue, in some parts of the world, that those conditions account for half or more of the year. Or the whole year, if you live in Seattle.
Working On It
As engineers and companies advance solar production technology, we get closer and closer to using solar energy as an alternative to traditional fossil fuel or high carbon emission energy sources. Part of that innovation has gone towards developing solutions to the problems presented by a lack of sunlight. In the last 10-15 years, progress has not only been steady, but significant with improvements to affordability, accessibility, and cooperation between solar production companies and other major buyers working to secure land and funding for further improvements.
In terms of general advances, we’re now seeing major projects designed to produce a great deal of solar energy for a particular business, buyer, or area. Solar companies will buy up big chunks of land, either from landowners or where available, that might otherwise go to waste as a landfill or as nothing. After that, they’ll install a solar facility designed to provide power to nearby utilities or businesses, supporting the growth of a solar energy industry.
This is an indirect way of addressing the sunlight issue, as it has more to do with establishing solar as a more regular option. As with all innovation, progress happens in steps and waves. The more commonplace solar energy becomes, the more technological development and funding it receives. Similarly, the more technological advancement done in that field, the easier it is to see widely implemented solar solutions. Basically, it helps if people see solar working, so when the time comes to invest, there’s something to point to and say “See here? It works!”
Staying In The Dark
Naturally, that leads us to the specific changes that people are working on to address night and inclement weather. To work in the solar industry now means adopting the mindset of an explorer, meaning that companies invested in solar production are necessarily tied to innovative and flexible changes in the industry.
Looking at specific solutions, we’d have to break it into two categories. The technology that we have now, which is constantly being modified and improved, and the technology that we will have, which may be in development but still incomplete.
What We Have Now
The two major technologies that help mitigate a lack of light are axel based solar trackers and solar batteries. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to get around a complete lack of light, which leaves us with improving the efficiency of our solar panels and trying to store the energy they produce. It’s worth noting that bad weather won’t necessarily stop a solar panel from working, but it will dull how efficiently it produces energy.
Solar Axis Trackers
Solar axis trackers are essentially motorized systems that follow the sun as it moves through the sky. Solar panels get their maximum efficiency from directly facing the sun because it allows for the full use of their surface area. The more light and heat hitting the panel, the more electricity it can produce. That means static solar panels lose a lot of their production efficiency once the sun moves beyond their set angle, and while they can be positioned to optimize their gain from the sun’s path based on their location, it will remain an imperfect system.
Axis trackers take after the function of sunflowers, which if you were unaware, follow the sun’s path throughout the day to increase their own energy production. It’s why they’re so big and tall and suspiciously active for plants. Unfortunately, axis trackers are expensive. Partially due to the physical cost, but also because of the technology involved with finding and tracking the sun’s path throughout the day. While they absolutely do increase energy production, it would take a very large scale operation or a good number of years before the gain would overtake the initial cost. So until these extensions are a bit cheaper, they’re not necessarily a perfect way to deal with low light scenarios. Also, no amount of following the sun will solve a complete lack of sun, so there’s that.
The other main solution, at least in terms of what’s currently available, is a battery. Solar-plus-storage systems are a somewhat recent development that combines the solar production process of a solar panel with an attached storage system that collects overflow energy and saves it for when a solar panel is inactive or functioning with less efficiency.
Solar batteries are one of the few solutions that allow for solar energy to power something at night. Currently, solar storage is a large field of development for the solar industry. While some homes and smaller areas may benefit from current battery technology, there’s a push to develop a solar storage system that will function on a commercial scale. During peak hours, most solar panels that are operating efficiently will produce more energy than they need, so having a storage system to collect and then later dispense that energy is ideal.
Grid connection technically allows solar production to power things at night. Rather than rely fully on solar panels, a house may be connected to both the solar production system and the standard, traditional energy grid.
During operational hours, the solar system will power the house or business it’s attached to. Any excess energy will be directed to the local utility grid, and then the company in question will provide credits based on how much excess energy is siphoned off. Once the solar system stops function due to a lack of light, the house will swap over to standard grid power, using the credits built up throughout the day to pay for the cost of energy.
This one’s a mixed bag. It does support the growth of solar energy options, but it still relies on traditional energy for at least some of its power production. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but availability may be limited based on local grid and company standards, and it’s not a fully solar powered system
What We Will Have
Moving forward, we can expect a number of advancements that will significantly improve our solar capabilities. The majority of progress will likely come in the form of advancements made to the same systems we just discussed. More efficient panels that make it easier to install and manage solar production systems, better batteries that allow for more efficient storage and subsequent use of solar energy, and even an increase to solar-grid exchanges that might drive down our reliance on fossil fuel based energy.
In some cases, though, we might even see sudden potential leaps in technology. Though not tested fully or in a workable state, recent work with photoswitches may prove a monumental leap forward in solar use. To make it simple, photoswitches work by moving between two stable shapes or forms. They collect energy in one shape, and when exposed to something like heat or electricity or light, they change shapes and release that energy.
Think of it like a spring. A completely untouched spring is resting in its “first form”, and as you pinch a spring, it collects potential energy by changing into a more tightly coiled “second form”. When you move your fingers, the spring releases kinetic energy as it returns to its “first form” and flies across the room.
Photoswitches are similar to that, but the energy they store can be absorbed through exposure to the sun’s light and heat, and they can stay in that “coiled” state until they’re exposed again, which allows us to collect the released energy when we need it. Currently, the primary concern is how to actually harness this capability in a functional and reliable collection system. There are a number of roadblocks at the moment, but people are making progress by combining these switches with other elements, such as polymers and nanotubes.
See The Light
Renewable energy is an enticing endeavor. As a more affordable and readily available energy source, it would provide access to power on a much larger scale. Additionally, the environmental benefits of moving away from intense carbon emissions in both developed and undeveloped countries would have a huge positive impact on the Earth as a whole. Still, development is happening at its own pace. More and more people in this generation are taking a vested interest in environmentally friendly energy solutions, so we’ve seen more progress in the last few years than ever before, but there’s still work to be done before we reach utopia levels of renewable reliance.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of interesting research and development happening in the solar sector. From newly developed technologies that may improve solar energy production, to accidental discoveries that may find a unique application in other fields like biomedicine, it’s an exciting time to see engineers and scientists are developing the world around us. We may not have successfully found a way around a sunless sky, but we are working to make better, more efficient solutions. Hopefully we get there before we run out of sun.