MIT is trying to improve solar energy production in a new way: instead of using flat solar panels, it is using three-dimensional ones (including a cubic and a tower version), thus increasing the surface area by a considerable amount. The end result is a much higher power generation capability when compared to the flat solar panels. Of course, the price of the panel is higher because there is more photovoltaic surface, but is MIT points out the photovoltaic material often represents “only” 35% of the cost of the classic installations. “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.
This is a great idea, and a similar one was explored by others who have created mirrors created by computers with genetic algorithms* in order to maximize sunlight gathering. However, we’re very curious to see what an actual installation looks like. Because things are not flat, we wonder if there are long-term practical consequences, like stuff getting caught in small spaces. Also, should customers worry about strong winds? MIT’s solar panels are designed to ship “flat” then be configured into their optimal shape later. They should work best on flat rooftops or simply on the ground. The tower version is the most energy efficient.
In any case, it is extremely hard to improve solar-energy power efficiency, so improving the phot-voltaic surface area, or dramatically reducing the cost (or both…) are ways that seem the most practical in the long-run.