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Are Solar Panels “Cool” Enough?

It's a Solar Panel. It doesn't get any cooler than that.
It’s a Solar Panel. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.

Solar panel technologies have been around for decades, always improving in efficiency and power capabilities, but are they “cool” enough?

Visionary Elon Musk, the force behind Tesla Motors electric vehicles, SolarCity solar panel and power systems, and the Tesla Gigafactory, the force behind them all, has been moving these technologies ahead, in spite of the fact that profit in these areas is somewhat inconsequential. Silevo, a California-based solar panel startup, has in development solar power technology that could be as much as 24% efficient, but funding is a dear need in any of these startups. In acquiring Silevo, Elon Musk’s significant funding could push this new technology into the future. A new plant, planned for New York State, could produce millions of gigawatts of solar power capacity per year at a profitable margin.

In a conference call after the Silevo announcement, Elon Musk said, perhaps in passing, that SolarCity would make “cool-looking” solar panels that people would actually want to put on their homes. I’m wondering, then, solar panels looking “cool” or not, is that why residential solar power is lagging? Personally, if anything says 21st Century, modern, clean, and “cool,” solar panels would fit the bill. Are solar panels “cool” enough for you and me, the regular folks that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take advantage of a source of renewable energy as unlimited as the sun?

There are a number of solar panel designs, but if efficiency is key, then there are but a few that we could choose from to put on the roof of a house or business. Could they be “improved” somehow? Perhaps they could be made to look more like household building materials, such as roofing tiles or siding, but there are only so many things that can be done to make them “not” look like solar panels. There’s only two things that could make solar panels more attractive, in my opinion, and that would be to make them more affordable and back them up with rechargeable battery packs.

Photo credit: jurvetson

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  1. LoneWolffe I am aware of these pavement panels, but they are incredibly heavy and likely block much more photons than the rooftop panels. Solar panels are already heavy, with the hail-resistant glass, not sure there is much margin for extra weight, which would have a cost on both the panels and the material to support them. Besides, you usually need to get on the roof only to fix a leak, the panels could be designed to interlock in a way that removes even the possibility of a leak, and that also makes removal and replacement of panels an easy job.
    More likely, if we are talking about panels as a roofing material, they would be smaller than the usual panels, more like big tiles, so they can fit any size, surround chimneys and roof windows. So you could just put a board on top of them if you need to access the roof, the weight would be distributed across many panels and would not be a problem. Or they could be some elevated handles on the panels so that the board would not even touch the glass. I am confident that there are creative engineers who will find elegant, beautiful and “cool” solutions to any such problem. There, I have answered my own concern!  😉

  2. Chimel PV building materials would be the way to go, and I don’t think they’d be as delicate as you think, at least they don’t have to be. Think Solar Roadways, because you can drive and walk on those, right? Similarly-constructed roofing tiles would be just as durable.

  3. Backing the solar panels with battery packs won’t make them “more affordable,” quite the opposite. I agree with Musk though that current solar panels are an horrible contraption sitting on top of the roof instead of being the roof and being all of it, not just rectangles with square angles that hurt just to watch them.

    Solar panels need to form the actual roof instead of tiles, so that they can be integrated with water pipes at the back that would cool down the panels and make them more efficient while producing hot water for free, and in winter, you could do the opposite, circulate warm water every time it snows to make the snow on the panel melt.

    The only problem with such an integration is that you probably can’t walk the roof anymore, for instance to install or fix a TV aerial. Small price to pay. Solar panels will look cool only when they become standard building material. Their usage should probably even be mandated for every new building with a traditional roof.

    By the way, solar arrays are usually installed on the south side of the roof only, does anybody know how much electricity the north side would produce in comparison? I know it depends on the slope, but most of the U.S. don’t have slopes like a Swiss chalet. Just wondering how much power indirect light would produce. That’s the good thing with light diffusion, it works everywhere, a bit like solar panels still continue to produce some power during a cloudy day. If the ROI on the north side is 5  times longer than on the south side, it’s still within the guarantee period with 25-year panels and a 5-year ROI, any power produced after that is free, minus maintenance.


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