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Solar power has been at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution, helping to propel the globe toward a more carbon-neutral future. Solar cells, tiles, rooftops, and organic panels are only some of the recent developments that have emerged in this industry. What if, however, we were able to collect solar energy through the windows and skylights of our houses and buildings, as well as from the windows of our vehicles and the screens of our cellphones? Let's investigate the pros and cons of transparent solar panels and see how they compare to traditional panels. The future of solar energy may consist of transparent solar cells. Or do we not have a good grasp on what is ahead?
Glass may be found in various sizes and shapes in today's society, from the little screen on a smartphone to the enormous panes covering tall buildings' windows. Imagine that quantity applied to the whole planet, since it is believed that there are between 5 and 7 billion square meters of glass surfaces in the United States alone. Additionally, the vast majority of buildings' glass facades do not take advantage of the energy potential they provide.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the consumption of energy for buildings and the construction industry accounts for about one-third of the overall energy consumption in the world. This accounts for forty percent of all direct and indirect carbon emissions into the atmosphere.And even though we have seen some development in this area, which I have discussed in a previous video, there is still a considerable distance to go before we see decarbonized buildings all across the globe.
Designs that use passive heating and natural lighting via triple-glazed windows and that use rooftop solar panels look fantastic, but what if we could take it one step further? What if we could harness the vast amounts of potential solar energy lost through a building's glass facades and windows? This energy could be used to illuminate and heat the building and generate electricity naturally. Enter translucent solar panels.
This technology is also known as photovoltaic glass, and it is a form of solar panel that is see-through. Unlike standard monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon panels, photovoltaic glass panels cannot be seen through, This innovative technique was developed to provide a certain degree of transparency.
In principle, solar panels might be used in a wide variety of applications, ranging from tiny mobile devices like smartphones and laptops to enormous windows like those seen in skyscrapers. However, traditional solar panels make electricity by soaking up visible light. On the other hand, a solar panel that is completely clear makes electricity in a way that seems backwards: it captures invisible light while letting visible light flow through it.
When most of us hear the phrase "transparent solar panel," our minds immediately go to something that is as see-through as a sheet of glass. However, this image is rather inaccurate. This phrase may technically apply to a panel that is entirely see-through or just partly see-through. Thus, let's have a look at the two different kinds of transparent solar panels that are available.
1) Partially Transparent Solar Panels
These panels are produced using a method known as thin film, which involves depositing very thin layers of semiconductor material on top of a sheet of glass during the manufacturing process. Then, a second layer of glass is stuck on top of the first to make a tasty semiconductor sandwich.
Because of these very thin layers of semiconductor material—we're talking about thicknesses of only a few microns here—these solar panels are able to seem transparent, and the opacity of the panels gradually rises with each additional layer that is added. Standard thin-film solar panels only work between 7 and 10% of the time, which is much less than modern silicon panels, like the ones on your roof, which work over 20% of the time.
Office buildings subjected to strong sunlight are ideal locations for installing partly transparent solar panels. These panels are put up in these buildings with the intention of lowering the amount of sunlight that enters the structure. When constructing windows and skylights, architects and engineers take into consideration the Solar Heat Gain Coefficient, also known as the SHGC, so that they may exercise control over the temperature inside of a structure. The Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) estimates, in its most basic form, the amount of solar heat that is able to be transmitted through the glass. The higher this proportion, the greater the amount of heat that enters the structure.
The solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) of the panels made by Onyx, one of the leaders in transparent PV glass for buildings, ranges from 10% to 40%. This limits the amount of solar heat that gets into the building while also providing energy.
2) Fully Transparent Solar Panels
The first entirely transparent solar cell was developed by a team of researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) in 2014. They were the ones who took the first step toward the goal of making solar panels look like regular glass.
The group came up with the idea of the transparent luminescent solar concentrator (TLSC), which makes use of organic salts to absorb only a specific portion of the solar spectrum. Some wavelengths of invisible light, like ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR), are in this part of the spectrum, but normal visible light can still get through.
When light from the sun strikes the panel, the UV and IR rays are converted into a distinct kind of infrared that emits a glow. After that, this newly created wavelength travels to the borders of the window, where it is captured by solar cells and turned into power.
When seen by the human eye, these materials seem transparent because they neither absorb nor emit light in the visible range. The researchers attained an 86% transparency level using the transparent solar panel they built. In spite of the fact that this prototype had a very poor efficiency (less than 1%), they claimed that it was possible to increase it to 10%.
The fact that the efficiency of transparent solar panels is much lower than that of traditional panels based on crystalline silicon is unquestionably a major drawback of this technology. However, efficiency is not the only factor to consider when it comes to solar panels. Because of their poor efficiency, transparent solar panels would require us to cover a much bigger area in order to generate the same amount of electricity as a rooftop solar array with an efficiency of 20%. Even so, because solar panels can be built into buildings in such a clear way, a larger area could be used to make up for the lower efficiency.
It is possible for thin-film solar cells to achieve high efficiencies even when they are not tilted at the optimal angle when using partially transparent solar panels, which is ideal for buildings and skyscrapers where the windows are installed in a vertical orientation. This is an interesting advantage of partially transparent solar panels. Thin-film cells are also more resistant to heat, and their efficiency suffers less of a drop when exposed to higher temperatures than the efficiency of conventional solar panels made of crystalline silicon.
Fully transparent solar panels have a number of advantages over their partially transparent counterparts, including the fact that they can convert any glass sheet or window into a photovoltaic cell, that they have a more aesthetically pleasing appearance, and that they can be utilized in a wider variety of settings. However, their poor efficiency is not the only major drawback to using them. Organic solar cells, which are used in transparent solar panels, break down faster than their inorganic counterparts. For instance, thin-film panels have an average lifetime of ten to twenty years, but crystalline silicon panels have an average longevity of twenty-five years.
Even though there is still a lot of room for improvement, businesses worldwide are starting to look into the technology because it has so many benefits and can be used in many fields, especially the construction industry.
Onyx Solar is one of the industry leaders when it comes to producing PV glass that is transparent for use in buildings. The firm produces solar glass using two distinct technologies: one is based on amorphous silicon, and the other is based on crystalline silicon. The company sells solar glass with varying degrees of transparency, ranging from 0% to 38%. Their panes are constructed out of layered heat-treated safety glass, and they are able to be shaped into anything from curtain walls to canopies and even floors, but I'll get to that in a second.
The McDonald's Flagship Restaurant at Walt Disney World, located in Florida, is an intriguing installation that uses their photovoltaic skylight. The structure was converted into the first restaurant in the United States to operate with zero net emissions and become a zero-energy facility. It is anticipated that the system will generate more than 2 million kWh of power over the course of 35 years and will have a payback period of less than four years.
Another one of Onyx's offerings is known as the PV Facade. The firm is responsible for creating the facade for the headquarters of FEMSA, which is the biggest Coca-Cola bottling plant corporation in the world (Monterrey, Mexico). This was one of the company's projects. It is made up of 370 large modules of gray amorphous silicon glass, each with a 20% transparency, and has a capacity of around 17,200 kWh.Overall, it is anticipated that this project will have a payback period of less than one year and will lower the amount of energy required for HVAC by 24%.
But you also have the opportunity to make a significant advance into the future... and onto a solar floor... paved with PV pavers manufactured by the firm. They are intended to be utilized for the movement of foot traffic and have a load capacity of up to 400 kilograms (about 880 pounds). In addition to this, they may be personalized in a wide variety of colors, and the installation process for them is the same as the process for installing wood floors or metal frames.
An example of a project that is gaining popularity is a Manhattan penthouse that installed an innovative and solar-harvesting patio using fifty glass tiles. 19% of the penthouse's HVAC needs were satisfied by the solar system, which also generates environmentally friendly power at a cost of around $0.012. Let's look at the good side of things to put things in perspective.
And in terms of price, their PV glass is priced at approximately $50 per square meter. In contrast, the price of a typical solar panel can range anywhere from $40 to $110 per square meter. The price of a typical double-pane window in Massachusetts is between $24 and $ 45 per square meter, including the material and installation cost.
Despite how cool they are, the degrees of transparency are not sufficient for applications that need transparent windows that seem to be made of regular glass. ClearVue, established in Australia, is a company that has been producing solar panels that are transparent with a little tint and do not have any visual distortion, attaining a transparency level of 70%. For this purpose, you may choose to investigate the company. Their innovation is made up of a few different layers, but in a nutshell, their glazing system is made up of nano and microparticles that are dispersed over an interlayer of thin film that is sandwiched between two panes of glass.
ClearVue's triple-glazed, low-emissive, insulated glass unit has a price point of $400 per square meter when purchased from the company. In comparison, the cost of a typical triple-pane window might vary anywhere from $270 to $430 per square meter.
They were responsible for the construction of the Warwick Shopping Centre Atrium in Perth, which is located in Australia. The installation consists of 18 panes of PV glass that are triple-glazed and low-emissive. These panels give electricity to the retail center's display and the internal lights and exterior signs. In addition, each solar window in this structure was able to generate around 0.1 kWh of energy after being exposed to light for 6-7 hours, as stated in an article published by the firm.
The business predicts that the financial payback time may be as short as a year in certain cases, but this figure varies depending on the project. When compared to the conventional double-glazed window's payback period of 100 years, the carbon payback period for these windows is less than nine years. They say that since these PV windows are made of inorganic materials, they may continue to generate electricity for more than 20 years with just a loss of 0.5% efficiency every year.
However, when we consider how efficient it is, we find that it's not all that wonderful. Today, their 3.5 x 1.6 meter solar window, which is the industry standard, is able to produce 30 W/m2, whereas an average 340-watt solar panel can give around 200 W/m2. That means we would need six times the area covered by these clear solar panels to get the same amount of power as a photovoltaic system on a roof.
On the other hand, this is where we circle back to some of the fascinating research being carried out. The team at the University of Michigan that Stephen Forrest is in charge of has been getting some interesting results as they work to improve efficiency.
They have been looking at using organic materials in the panels. Nevertheless, the most difficult problem they have is figuring out how to stop the panels from degrading too quickly. The team has been working on a solution to this issue by adding layers to the side of the glass that is exposed to the sun. They tested a variety of materials, but the most recent one, using a fullerene-based substance, has shown the most potential.
They subjected this newly developed transparent solar panel to a variety of tests, including simulations of sunshine with intensities ranging from one sun's worth to 27 suns' worth, as well as temperatures reaching up to 65 degrees Celsius (150 degrees Fahrenheit). The study came to the conclusion that, after 30 years, the solar cells will still be able to supply 80% of their original power. In addition to this, they have reached a transparency level of 40% and feel that it is feasible to raise this figure to 60%. Also, they are putting in a lot of work to increase the 10% efficiency to 15% at a higher level of openness.
It is not hard to see that transparent solar panels still have a tough route to complete transparency at greater efficiencies (or at least efficiencies closer to normal solar panels) and power densities at an acceptable cost for the market. This is something that has to be done. This technology, which has an efficiency of less than 10% and power densities of 30W/m2, nevertheless needs a much bigger area to provide the same amount of electricity as rooftop PV systems are able to deliver. However, it is also essential to keep in mind that the initial efficiency of 1%, which the University of Michigan achieved in 2014, was boosted to around 10% in 2021. That's a big deal, and it should really get you excited. Here's hoping that, over time, the technology will become more affordable.
On the other hand, a few challenges must first be overcome. Because there is a compromise between efficiency and transparency, scientists will need to improve the technology's efficiency before it can be scaled up. The more see-through a panel is, the less effective it is. This is why see-through panels are not projected to surpass or replace the conventional solar panels that we have used. In any case, technology could be able to speed up the process of getting mankind to a future that is more environmentally friendly and truly sustainable.
What are the advantages of using transparent solar panels?
The concept of net-zero energy buildings is not farfetched. To be quite honest, the idea of translucent solar panels seems like it would be too wonderful to be true. They have the ability to transform cities from big energy consumers to significant energy suppliers in an instant. They also have the potential to usher in a new age of a clean energy revolution while simultaneously protecting farms and natural ecosystems.
Can solar panels be made transparent?
Solar panels that are transparent have clear glass appearance and allow light to pass through them much like ordinary windows. However, they are constructed using a sort of solar glass that is able to take in light from the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums, both of which are invisible to the human eye, and convert that energy into sustainable forms of power.
When it comes to the future of solar panels, what can we expect?
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) forecasts that solar energy may produce 45% of the electricity in the United States by 2050 if the energy system is completely decarbonized. Photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power are projected to continue their fast growth.
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