New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that innovative 3-D designs - such as stacked cubes or towers that extend solar cells vertically - can more than double the solar power generated from a given area, writes David L. Chandler.
Intensive research around the world has focused on improving the performance of solar photovoltaic cells and bringing down their cost. But very little attention has been paid to the best ways of arranging those cells, which are typically placed flat on a rooftop or other surface, or sometimes attached to motorized structures that keep the cells pointed toward the sun as it crosses the sky.
Now, a team of MIT researchers has come up with a very different approach: building cubes or towers that extend the solar cells upward in three-dimensional configurations. Amazingly, the results from the structures they've tested show power output ranging from double to more than 20 times that of fixed flat panels with the same base area.
The biggest boosts in power were seen in the situations where improvements are most needed: in locations far from the equator, in winter months and on cloudier days. The new findings, based on both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules, have been published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.
"I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics", says the paper's senior author, Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Career Development Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT.
The MIT team initially used a computer algorithm to explore an enormous variety of possible configurations and developed analytic software that can test any given configuration under a whole range of latitudes, seasons and weather. Then, to confirm their model's predictions, they built and tested three different arrangements of solar cells on the roof of an MIT laboratory building for several weeks.
While the cost of a given amount of energy generated by such 3-D modules exceeds that of ordinary flat panels, the expense is partially balanced by a much higher energy output for a given footprint, as well as much more uniform power output over the course of a day, over the seasons of the year, and in the face of blockage from clouds or shadows. These improvements make power output more predictable and uniform, which could make integration with the power grid easier than with conventional systems, the authors say.
The basic physical reason for the improvement in power output — and for the more uniform output over time — is that the 3-D structures' vertical surfaces can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon.
The time is ripe for such an innovation, Grossman adds, because solar cells have become less expensive than accompanying support structures, wiring and installation. As the cost of the cells themselves continues to decline more quickly than these other costs, the advantages of 3-D systems will grow accordingly.
Photo credit: Allegra Boverman
Two small-scale versions of three-dimensional photovoltaic arrays were among those tested by Jeffrey Grossman and his team on an MIT rooftop to measure their actual electrical output throughout the day.