Though the use of solar panels is on the rise, it still only represents 1.5 percent of total energy consumption in Europe.
There are many reasons for this, starting with the intermittent nature of solar energy due to bad weather, the difficulty of storing it, and the cost of solar panels.
Researchers at the Institute for Microtechnology in Neuchatel, Switzerland are working on ways to make solar energy more cost-effective. This includes using less expensive metals such as copper, as well as new technology to better absorb sunlight.
Christophe Ballif, director the Photovoltaics laboratory, shows our reporter the new generation panels.
He explains how they contain more copper than silver, bringing down production costs. Engineers have also added a nanometric layer of silicon, increasing voltage, and thereby performance, by 15 percent.
After it has been built, the solar panel undergoes resistance tests. For the hail test, balls of ice measuring four centimetres in diameter are launched at the panel at a speed of 27 metres per second.
Researchers are particularly interested in how the panel’s thin layer of silicon will stand the shock. Once the artificial hail storm is over, the panel’s performance is measured again to see if it could take it.
Then comes the weight test. Metal bricks weighing more than twelve kilos each are stacked onto the panels until the load reaches 1,000 kilos per square metre. The idea is to simulate strong winds and heavy snow. This will allow engineers to select the right material for building the panels.
“On top of the reliability tests, we also carry out tests on the panel’s electric performance, which are very important because they allow us to calculate how much electricity the unit generates. In order to do that, we use light tables, which simulate the sun’s spectrum and allow us to measure the unit’s electric efficiency,” says researcher Laure-Emmanuelle Perret.
“That kind of measurement allows us to establish whether there are any manufacturing defects, especially when it comes to the electrical connections,” she adds.
In addition, researchers in Neuchatel have created a new panel called ‘terracotta’ because of its colour, which they hope will blend in better with roof tiles in cities across Europe.
It is hoped that soon, new, more efficient and less costly technology will help create more cost-effective and efficient solar panels, making them a force to be reckoned with on the global energy market.