Solar power records smashing like pumpkins

Wow. What a time for solar energy. On top of recent gains in plastic and thin-film photovoltaics the University of Delaware now reports the world’s most efficient solar cell at 42.8% — if the finding is confirmed it will boost high-end PV output an incredible 2.1% over the previous record set by Boeing-subsidiary SpectroLab last December (see my presentation of their approach at MIT Technology Review: “Ultra-efficient Photovoltaics”).

The University of Delaware advance is notable for (a) the incredible consortium assembled to bring together the multiple PV cells employed in the record-breaking cell, (b) the role of government funding — in this case its dollars from DARPA that were yanked out of the hands of another set of researchers developing plastic solar cells, and (c) the comeback it represents for Allen Barnett, the University of Delaware scientist leading the effort.

Barnett founded what was once the most successful solar U.S. solar producer, AstroPower, which made its mark producing photovoltaics from recycled silicon wafers. The firm took a blow when the tech bubble burst and semiconductor manufacturing slowed, causing a shortage of recycled wafers, and was then destroyed by an accounting scandal. GE picked up AstroPower’s assets in bankruptcy proceedings in 2004 — adding one more piece in the energy giant’s sweep into renewable energy (see “The Greening of GE” for more on that story).

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3 thoughts on “Solar power records smashing like pumpkins

  1. So if you were a small or medium sized business, or even a consumer, what would this solar efficiency mean to you? To Irene’s comment of the other day, there are “green power” options coming on line for residents, but it’s a bit murky how they benefit. Do they create greater supply? Do they fund offsetting projects? How long till this improved solar technology has an impact on the day-to-day things? Lots of questions I know… Curious if you’ve got thoughts on the matter.

  2. Wow Lorraine. Those are lots of questions indeed and big questions to boot. I’ve got two answers:

    Re Solar efficiency gains — If solar modules capture more of the incoming solar energy as electric current (ie have higher efficiency) then their cost of production and installation is repaid with a larger power stream, hence the cost of each kilowatt-hour of power is reduced. However, most of what I’m writing about here — with the exception of the First Solar advances — is still at the R&D stage. These laboratory advances foretell lower power costs in future, but much engineering remains to be done.

    Re “Green Power” options — That’s another world indeed, requiring more detailed treatment. I’ll try to find a good write-up, having never specifically covered it myself. My understanding is that there is some controversy as to whether the extra payments to the power companies truly fund additional green power production (I think this is why the Massachusetts group she mentioned might oppose the utility’s efforts to sell green power, as the utility might be required to sell a certain percentage of renewable energy anyway). On a deeper level, there is also an argument as to whether adding ‘green energy’ simply enables us to continue expanding our total energy outlays instead of reducing power use (be it green, grey or black).

  3. Hmmm. Thanks, Peter. Very helpful. I have more questions but I’ll shut my computer’s power off for now and give them further thought 😉

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