Engineers at Michigan State University announced this month that they had developed the world's first transparent solar panels — technology that could have widespread applications.
One day, while your car sits in the parking lot, its windows might recharge the electric battery. Photovoltaic cells might no longer be confined to rooftops, as windows could become surfaces from which to harness the sun's rays. Soon, the screen on your smartphone might also power the device itself.
Unlike traditional solar panels which are composed of black glass to absorb all types of light, these panels are made up of mirroring sheets of organic salts that act as transparent, luminescent solar concentrators, capturing ultraviolet and infrared light, invisible to the human eye, and harvesting it through miniature plastic solar cells that line the edges of the frames.
"Black solar panels have a limited utility, in terms of where you can put them," Jay Guo, who served as lead engineer in the development of the transparent solar panels, told VICE News. "But if we can make the panels blend in, people will be more willing to deploy them."
The clear photovoltaic panels are the latest breakthrough in a field that has grown by leaps and bounds since its early days in the mid-nineteenth century. No longer does it take a huge leap to imaging driving a solar-powered car on a heated LED highway, which captures sunlight and uses it to keep ice off the roads.
Early twentieth century solar arrays could barely power a dozen, modern US homes. Last year, MidAmerican Solar completed a solar station in Topaz, California that can generate 550 megawatts — enough to power 160,000 homes. In total, the United States produced 30 percent more solar power last year than the year before and America's grid now has the capacity to generate 20 gigawatts of solar electricity — enough for four million households — according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
"More solar energy is being added to the grid today than any other form of energy," said Jigar Shah, an expert in renewable energy investment and cofounder of Generate Capital Group. In global terms, "we are literally deploying $140 billion of solar a year now."
When Shah started his first company, the solar utility and development firm SunEdison in 2003, the industry was still in its infancy. It has come a long way since then, he said. "Back then banks didn't even know what solar panels were. Now they view solar as their largest growth area. When I started there really were no certifications in solar installation. Today, there are 3,000 people a month being certified to work in the solar industry."
Meanwhile, a 2014 report from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) noted that direct federal subsidies towards solar grew from $1.1 billion to $4.5 billion between 2009 and 2013. Yet, solar accounted for less than half of a percent of electricity generated in 2014, compared with 39 percent from coal and 27 percent from natural gas.
The industry's chief source of federal support, a 30 percent tax credit on investments in solar energy is scheduled to fall to 10 percent in 2016, leading to concerns it could shrink growth.
"We project solar capacity will drop off dramatically if the solar investment tax credit goes to 10 percent," said Ken Johnson, Vice President of Communications with the SEIA.
'The simple fact of the matter is fossil fuels, and the oil industry in particular, has been getting tax breaks in the US tax code since 1913.'
The Obama Administration says it will seek to make the 30 percent tax credit permanent in 2016 budget. Whether or not Congress will sign off on the proposal remains uncertain.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the oil and gas sector spent nearly $62 million in the 2014 election cycle. By contrast, according to the center, the entire renewable energy sector, which includes solar, as well as wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biofuels, spent just over $2 million.
"The simple fact of the matter is fossil fuels, and the oil industry in particular, has been getting tax breaks in the US tax code since 1913," said Johnson. "Solar by contrast, has only been receiving the investment tax credit since 2006. It is following a similar curb as traditional energy sources, which received substantial subsidies during their development and today are still receiving many of them."
Together with traditional utility companies, fossil fuel interests have also been working at the state level to block or rollback solar rebate programs that allow customers to sell the excess electricity their panels generate back to the utilities.
Yet, even without subsidies, the EIA projects solar power could eventually become less expensive than natural gas by 2020. In Chile, which has an ideal climate for solar given its high elevation and proximity to the equator, it is already 20 percent cheaper, and even in far-from-sunny England low-cost solar panels from China have helped to make it competitive with gas. The US Commerce Department is considering partially lifting tariffs it imposed last year on Chinese panels, which could make the American solar industry's future a bit sunnier.
But the United States is still a long way from weaning itself off of fossil fuels, as the EIA data bears out. While clear solar panels or industrial scale projects, powering a hundred thousand homes at a time, are no longer a figment of one's imagination, powering a substantial portion of the nation by way of the sun requires a great leap in political and financial commitment.
"Every hour the amount of energy we receive from the sun is enough to power Earth for one whole year," Michigan States' Guo told VICE News. "Imagine if we can harness it."
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