In the new energy future, building owners can squeeze some extra value out of their property by installing rooftop solar panels or even integrating solar energy harvesting directly into roofing materials and exterior walls. Unfortunately for some buildings, windows take up a significant amount of surface area and are therefore lost to the cause...or are they?
For the past year, scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have been working with a company called New Energy Technologies to develop a high performance solar panel that doubles as a transparent glass window, and it looks like all that hard work is beginning to pay off.
See-through solar panels that look like windows
New Energy Technologies has developed a tiny organic solar cell (organic solar cells are made primarily of polymers, or plastic) that is about one-fourth the size of a grain of rice, and only 1/1000th the thickness of a human hair. That's far thinner than the state of conventional thin film solar technology. New Energy's solar cells can be applied to transparent glass using an energy efficient spray-on process while appearing practically invisible, and they can generate electricity from artificial sources as well as sunlight.
A little help from that pesky meddling government
Last year, New Energy Technologies caught the eye of the Department of Energy, which through President Obama's Sunshot Initiative has been on the lookout for new technologies that can help bring the cost of solar power into parity with fossil fuels. Last April, DOE announced that its Renewable Energy Laboratory has been working with New Energy to increase the size of its solar window. By February 2012, the public-private team had succeeded in creating the lab's largest ever organic solar cell, resulting in an "invisible" solar panel about the size of a small window.
A new breakthrough for see-through solar panels
Just last week, New Energy announced that its work with NREL has resulted in another development that will boost the performance of the technology, which it calls SolarWindow™ . The research team has developed a conductive wiring grid that is practically invisible, which provides for more efficient energy harvesting without interfering with the see-through quality of the panel.
Can't we all just get along, solar powerly speaking?
Earlier wiring systems that New Energy developed on its own were relatively bulky and aesthetically unappealing, and because the wires obstructed light, they also interfered with the light absorbency of the solar cells. The company overcame these obstacles with the help of (ahem) a taxpayer-funded facility, and in turn millions of buildings owners and/or their tenants could stand to benefit directly once the technology is commercialized.That's in addition to the potential for lowering energy costs at public facilities, which benefits everyone.
As for why leaders of one of America's only two major political parties continue to bash federal investment in new solar technologies at every turn, one can only guess that they have something against building owners. And tenants. And taxpayers.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter, @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.