This month is the annual National Solar Tour, organized in part by the America Solar Energy Society (ASES)*. This event is an opportunity to visit real, operating solar installations near you. (Check it out.)
“The tour hopes to inspire people across the nation to make sustainable energy choices that reduce costs, support energy independence, protect against power outages, and reduce carbon emissions.”
This year we’ve seen more and more news about solar, wind, and other renewable energy generation. Two sure signs that a technology is “real” is (a) political attacks by competitors and (b) media fascination with some “genius” who supposedly represents the “revolution”.
Elon Musk has been making waves, taking a role as the “Marc Andreeson of solar power” (though, to be fair, Musk is a lot more technically clueful than MA every was). He’s spending money and announcing slick products that are supposed to be groundbreaking.
The fact is, across the whole industry, there has been tremendous technical development of solar panels and, equally important, the accompanying systems to deploy and maintain them. Musk is a media darling, but he’s not even near the leading edge, technically.
For example, we see many companies with integrated systems and better batteries.
Case in point, SunCulture corporation has SolPad, which include generation, storage, and interconnect. (They also have a “gamified”, touch screen interface which I’m not so keen on—they are flirting with the Inappropriate Touch Screen File.)
A little farther out, there is progress on a hybrid solar heat/electic generation. A research group out of Wisconsin is prototyping a “Photoelectrochemical” system that uses solar energy to charge a liquid battery.  I’m not really up on this technology, but the general idea is that this is a way to store a lot of energy in a rugged system.
Finally, I note the major player SunPower, that has been doing photovoltaics since the Reagan administration. They have industrial scale technology, with control systems and software, clever deployment techniques (using UAVs, naturally), and robot cleaning technology! (They call it a “panel cleaning robot”. We can do better than that! “Solar-oomba”? “PeeVee-Squegee”? “SunShiner?)
The point is, there is a lot of cool technology, at every stage of development, including “click here to buy a solar generating station”. Despite the corporate press releases and the fawning in the media, this is not the work of a few geniuses, it is the work of decades of R&D coming to fruit.
* Disclosure: I’m a member of ASES since I can’t remember when. 1986?
- Wenjie Li, Hui-Chun Fu, Linsen Li, Miguel Cabán-Acevedo, Jr-Hau He, and Song Jin, Integrated Photoelectrochemical Solar Energy Conversion and Organic Redox Flow Battery Devices. Angewandte Chemie International Edition:n/a-n/a, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/anie.201606986