Are Transparent Solar Panels the Future?
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Solar has come a long way throughout the last decade. Widespread investments in new technologies and renewable energy have decreased costs, making solar panels more affordable and accessible than ever before. Yet, just when you thought their mechanisms reached peak efficiency and design, innovators developed something even more groundbreaking: Transparent solar panels.
One might look at the latest technology and say they resemble modern-looking windows — if that’s your take, you’re on the right track. The question is when will they hit the market for consumers to buy, and how will they shape the future of solar?
What are Transparent Solar Panels?
Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have developed photovoltaic (PV) glass — solar glass panels that generate electricity. Their invention began in 2014 with the first clear luminescent solar concentrator — a glass panel or sheet that could transform an ordinary window into a PV cell. As of 2020, they’ve attained full transparency of the PV cell and inspired companies to pursue manufacturing.
Imagine a future where your living room windows could generate power from sunlight — Transparent solar panels will also shape green construction, enabling businesses to reach their energy efficiency goals, and cities to achieve optimal sustainability. The same could apply to your car windows, computer screens, and smartphone.
There’s little doubt that clear glass solar panels will gain popularity. Remember when few thought rooftop solar would take off? Today, 19% of Americans have solar panels or are installing them — another 48% intend to do so soon.
Thanks to an extension of federal tax credits, state incentives, and rebates, people are more optimistic about the upfront costs of solar, especially considering the price of utilities. As inflation rises and enters the energy sector, more Americans struggle to heat, cool, and power their homes.
How Solar Power Windows Work
At this point, you’re likely aware that PV solar panels absorb radiation to generate electricity and power your household. However, cells must be planted on a panel, meaning sunlight can’t pass through them. So, how did the MSU researchers get around this snafu?
The transparent solar concentrators contain cyanine, effectively capturing radiant energy, which entails infrared and ultraviolet light. Although the human eye will see natural light pass through the glass, the concentrators hold onto some of it and convert it to electricity.
The MSU researchers point out that the U.S. has nearly 5 to 7 billion square meters of glass building surfaces, from homes to commercial spaces. All in all, transparent solar panels could meet 40% of the U.S. energy demand.
As early as 2017, the clear panels were already at 5% efficiency — traditional panel systems are usually 15% to 18% efficient. Obviously, the data is positive news for the future of renewable energy. Some homeowners may also dislike how solar panels look on their rooftops. Window-based PV cells tie in seamlessly with their homes and are barely noticeable.
Additionally, installing traditional solar panels is quite the job, taking up excessive space and often running up a high bill — before the discounts. Therefore, transparent solar panels are a realistic alternative for businesses in heavily-populated areas to integrate transparent solar panel windows for greater energy efficiency and to meet their net-zero targets.
Can You Buy Transparent Solar Panels for Your Home or Business?
There are plenty of reasons to get excited about these new developments in solar panels. Transparent solar panels could be a game changer for more widespread installation and meeting U.S. climate goals. Naturally, consumers and businesses want to know when the latest technology will become available.
It’s crucial to note that when fully transparent solar panels hit the market, they will be costly. In time, just like conventional solar panels, the price will decrease with widespread adoption. You can already purchase semi-clear solar panels at 30% to 40% — opaque but not entirely see-through.
The Eco Experts price semi-transparent panels at £250 per square meter — about $313 in the U.S. However, most scientists predict they’ll be 50% cheaper than conventional solar panel installations since most structures will be able to apply the sheet to existing window panes and frames.
Where are Transparent Solar Panels Currently in Use?
Several places have begun using the available clear panels with great success thanks to the sustainable technology company Physee in the Netherlands. Physee was a pioneer of transparent solar panels, developing the Power Window.
In 2021, the company installed 15,000 of its solar energy windows, intending to cut 30% of its energy consumption and spending. The company’s PowerWindow product currently covers 300 square feet of a Dutch bank. Physee’s PowerWindow also paves the way for a PV glass that the company calls SmartSkin. In the future, SmarSkin will use an automated system to sense, power, and regulate indoor climate.
Ubiquitous Energy is another company making waves in transparent solar panel developments. After installing 100 square feet of its product at its headquarters in Redwood City, California, Ubiquitous Energy installed the solar windows at MSU, at the Nippon Sheet Glass, Co. Ltd. (NSG) in Ohio, and Boulder Commons in Colorado, and the NSG Chiba Facility in Japan.
Elsewhere, the Copenhagen International School in Denmark has installed 12,000 semi-transparent panels, delivering 200 megawatts of electricity annually and twice as much energy as the building consumes.
Although the current transparent solar panels have a slight tint, that could soon change with MSU’s crystal-clear innovation. From there, the real question is how quickly homeowners and commercial landlords will adopt the new energy-efficient and sustainable technology.
Transparent Solar Panels Coming Soon to Consumers
More of the population have indicated concern about the planet amid increasing climate change. Many have also made calls to implement environmentally-sound alternatives and advancements in renewable energy.
Seeing that people want to make a difference and get involved in environmental protection, transitioning to transparent solar panels will save them money, deliver modern home upgrades, and lower their environmental impacts. Ultimately, this emerging technology should excite those who’ve harnessed — or want to harness — the power of solar energy.
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About the author
Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.