Transparent solar panels could reach consumers surprisingly soon

At #9, we explore how transparent panels can make homes and offices more sustainable.
Ameya Paleja
A solar cell
A solar cell

In the past few years, the costs of solar energy generation have dropped significantly, and this renewable energy generation resource is not just environment-friendly but pocket-friendly too. Designers and engineers are now working on the next phase, where these panels can be integrated into regular windows, and doing so need the panels to be transparent, which is a big challenge.

The current design of solar panels uses the opacity of the solar cell to capture as much energy as possible, which is then used to convert it into electricity. As one reduces the opacity of the panel, the energy conversion efficiency also drops. Companies are, however, innovating to keep the panels transparent and still derive considerable energy from them.

This is number 9 in Interesting Engineering's series, showcasing the best innovations of 2022. Check back to discover more about groundbreaking AI, unique solar panels, new 3D printing methods, and much more.

How do transparent solar panels generate power?

One of the ways to generate solar energy from a transparent window is to insert a layer of light-absorbing material between two glass panels. UbiQD, a Los Alamos-based company calls it the quantum dot technology, where the layer absorbs solar energy and internally reflects it to the edges where electricity can be generated.

Another way to do this is to put a layer of transparent coating on the window which can absorb solar energy. Ubiquitous Power, a Redwood City-based company uses this approach and claims that it taps into both infrared and ultraviolet spectra of sunlight to make electricity while letting the visible spectrum pass.

Products from both these companies have been installed on a trial basis at many sites and are now closer to production. This would mean that come 2023; you can practically order them for your home or office needs and tap into the abundance of solar energy without having to install bulky solar panels.

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What about energy conversion efficiency?

The maximum energy conversion efficiency of these windows stands at five percent, which is lesser than a quarter of commercially available solar panels today. In absolute terms, this might seem like a poor bargain. However, transparent solar windows do not need dedicated spaces on your rooftops, rather help you retain the aesthetics of your building.

An office space with a facade of transparent solar windows can repurpose the rooftop for something useful rather than as a dead space that houses solar panels. Surely, solar windows won't come at the same price as regular windows but will also offer much more than the non-energy generating counterparts.

As technologies mature, one can expect transparent solar windows to deliver higher conversion efficiencies as well and make your home or office more sustainable.

This is number 9 in Interesting Engineering's series, showcasing the best innovations of 2022. Check back to discover more about groundbreaking AI, unique solar panels, new 3D printing methods, and much more.