Transparent solar cells could rival rooftop solar power

Michigan State UniversityMichigan State University

See-through or transparent solar cells have the potential to generate as much energy as rooftop solar units by applying the technology to windows.

That’s according to the latest research from Michigan State University scientist Richard Lunt, reported in Nature Energy.

“Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar applications,” said Lunt,  Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at MSU.

The widespread use of see-through solar materials, together with rooftop solar, could almost meet 100 per cent of US electricity demand.

See-through solar glass has global applications

Transparent solar cells

See-through solar cells represent the wave of the future for energy production, says MSU Professor Richard Lunt. Image: MSU

Currently, solar power provides about 1.5 per cent of US and global demand for electricity.

But with an estimated five-to-seven billion square metres of glass surfaces in the US, the researchers say transparent solar cells could supply 40 per cent of US energy demand. That’s the same potential as rooftop solar power, according to Lunt.

“The complementary deployment of both technologies could get us close to 100 per cent of our demand,” he said.

However, he added that success would depend on improving battery storage systems for solar power.

In Australia, home solar power has reached the highest penetration in the world, supplying 3.3 per cent of national demand. Figures released in April by the Australian Photovoltaic Institute show rooftop solar capacity has now reached 5.6GW.

The research offers a glimpse into a future where see-through solar material generates energy from buildings, car windows and other devices.

Transparent solar cells research has ‘massive’ potential

The see-through solar harvesting system harnesses organic molecules to absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight. These molecules can be tuned to pick up the ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths and convert them into electricity.

Currently, the system records solar conversion rates of 5 per cent. That’s far below standard solar panels, which have efficiencies above 18 per cent.

Lunt said while see-through materials would never reach the efficiency of conventional panels, they would get very close, very soon.

Right now, transparent solar technologies are only at about a third of their realistic overall potential, he said.

“That is what we are working towards,” Lunt said. “We have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years.

“Ultimately, this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible.”