Mary Branscombe (marypcb) wrote,
Mary Branscombe

Future in Review: the other side of efficient solar

I was disappointed by the thorium nuclear power session yesterday; it's a little too much like existing nuclear power that I have huge reservations about. 75 year half-life and non-fissile material that can't overheat and set off a Three Mile Island or be made into weapons is good, but a facile approach to safety ('hey, I'm sure you can get zapped by a solar panel') does not reassure me and a facile dismissal of other energy ('solar panels the size of the hotel swimming pool would only power one of the lights in the room') doesn't help. Maybe I want the nuclear industry unnaturally humble but I think it has a case to make.

So does solar, but Jeff Krisa from Tiga Energy gave me one of the best explanations I've had of why solar has advanced so slowly so far. Not just the dominance of the oil industry but the fact that it's a subsidised industry and subsidy suppresses innovation (if you get money at an inefficient level why try to get more efficient?). The rising cost of oil made it attractive to start work on solar again and there's some great materials science going on: using filters to use all the solar light wavelengths, not just the easy ones, making panels significantly cheaper by printing them onto a flexible substrate rather than glass (the substrate is cheaper, you don't need glass-moving robots or a massive clean room which means the energy cost is lower too). Tigo is working on the other side of things; getting the DC power out of the panels efficiently.

Today they're linked in serial in a monolithic system; all the power from all the panels in a series comes through together so one panel that's in shadow or out of alignment or just not working properly can pull down all the power you get out. Tiga distributes electronic monitoring and control throughout the solar array; instrumenting the panels lets you manage them independently and tapping them individually is more efficient. Getting more power out of the same solar array seems like a no brainer, as long as the installation costs are low enough. 

And yes, you can get zapped by a solar panel; "whether the switch is on or off, as long as you have sun you have 400, 600 even a kilovolt running through the panel". Bad if you're trying to do maintenance or climb over the panel to put out a fire; Tigo says they can turn panels off and they'll be off. I wonder if making solar panels easier and safer to maintain puts the cost down overall even more?

Incidentally 80% of the world's nuclear power cores are now made by the Japanese steel industry and the next electric car out of Japan will cost less than $20,000 rather than $50,000. I wonder what the Japanese are doing in solar?
Tags: conference, fire, fire 2009, solar energy, technology

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