New solar towers, cubes offer 20X more power, researchers say

mit solar towers

Two small-scale versions of three-dimensional photovoltaic arrays were among those tested by on an MIT rooftop to measure their actual electrical output throughout the day.

Credit: Allegra Boverman

Solar towers are ideal for lower light conditions

Researchers at MIT have discovered a method of optimizing solar energy collection by arranging photovoltaic (PV) panels on a tower or in a cube shape.

The new forms of solar energy collection offer anywhere from double to 20 times as much output compared with today's common flat-panels using the same area.

The technology would be most advantageous in northern climates -- further away from the equator -- where the less intensive solar exposure can be optimized.

MIT's research, the findings for which are based on both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules, were published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

"I think this concept could become an important part of the future of photovoltaics," Jeffrey Grossman, an associate professor of Power Engineering at MIT and lead author of the research paper, said in a statement.

The cost of the 3D solar towers or cubes exceeds that of ordinary flat panels. But 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 and over the seasons when panels face less light and more cloud cover, the researchers stated.

mit solar tower2 Allegra Boverman

MIT's solar towers.

Because solar cells have become less expensive than accompanying support structures, wiring and installation, the time is right to move forward with the innovation, the researchers said.

Solar power generation is leading the cost decline in solar systems. Solar photovoltaic (PV) module costs have fallen 75% since the end of 2009 and the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV has fallen 50% since 2010, according to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

In a separate report issued by Deutsche Bank last year, the cost to generate power through solar means was predicted to drop by 40% over the next three to four years. Deutsche Bank has also reported that the cost of rooftop solar power is expected to beat coal and oil-fired plant energy costs in just two years.

MIT's 3D solar structures' vertical surfaces can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon, according to co-author Marco Bernardi, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).

The 3D solar structure improvements simply make power output more predictable and uniform, which could make integration with the power grid easier than with conventional systems, the authors said.

"Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn't have been economically justified because the modules cost so much," Grossman said. "The cost for silicon cells is a fraction of the total cost, a trend that will continue downward in the near future."

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