Mother Earth News Blogs > Renewable Energy

Renewable Energy

All things energy, from solar and wind power to efficiency and off-grid living.

Solar Can See Clearly Now: New Solar Concentrators Could Dramatically Reduce the Cost of PV

By Tabitha Alterman

Tags: solar, energy, electricity, PV technology,

A couple weeks ago, we told you about a new, funky kind of solar panel that’s about to hit the market (Solar Panels Get a Make-over). A few months ago, we told you about a completely different kind of solar energy with gobs and gobs of potential — utility scale CSP, or concentrating solar power (Solar Thermal Power Coming to a Boil). We’ve also recently sung the praises of solar power potential in Solar Power Could Provide 10 Percent of U.S. Electricity by 2025. Clearly, we’re crazy for solar around here!

But can you handle even more good solar news? 

A team of researchers at MIT has invented an award-winning solar electric system that is vastly more efficient than typical solar panels. And believe it or not, it should be vastly more affordable, too. Props go to associate professor of electrical engineering Marc A. Baldo, graduate students in electrical engineering Michael Currie, Jon Mapel and Timothy Heidel, and postdoctoral associate in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, Shalom Goffri. (Mad props also to the National Science Foundation, for supporting the research!)

The team’s “solar concentrator” collects the sun’s energy over a large dye-coated glass or plastic surface, such as a window, and gathers it at the edges. Therefore, expensive photovoltaic cells are only necessary around the glass panel’s edges. And the concentrated light actually multiplies the electrical output of each cell by up to 40 times. The best news may be for homeowners who already operate a solar electric system, because they’ll be able to boost their system efficiency significantly with even an inexpensive retrofit. Covalent Solar, the company founded by Currie, Mapel and Goffri, expects to be able to bring this technology to market within three years.

Watch professor Marc Baldo explain how these solar concentrators work:

   " setmovie="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" stopmovie="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" startmovie="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" pausemovie="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" playmovie="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" viddlerpause="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" viddleropen="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" viddlerseek="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" viddlerswitch="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }" getcurrenttime="function () { return eval(instance.CallFunction("" + __flash__argumentsToXML(arguments,0) + "")); }">

New whiz-bang technologies are always cool, but the best news behind this development is about affordability. Says the research team: “Unsubsidized solar electricity is over three times as expensive as the average grid prices for electricity derived from conventional energy sources, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Dramatic cost reductions are needed. Clean, renewable electricity at affordable prices would be an attractive alternative to conventional electricity and the related fossil-fuel dependence, greenhouse-gas emissions and peak-time grid constraints.”

Further Resources: 

* You can read the full report about the team's solar concentrator technology in the July 2008 issue of Science magazine: High-Efficiency Organic Solar Concentrators for Photovoltaics.

* Wish you were smarter? Catch more cool videos at MIT TechTV or participate in MIT classes through their free service, MITOpenCourseWare.

* Check out the January/February 2009 issue of our sister magazine, Natural Home, for more about solar concentrators.