New innovations in solar technology seem to arrive daily, and the beneficiaries of these breakthroughs are everyday businesses and consumers. What’s becoming most prominent across the solar landscape in recent months, however, is how new applications and technologies are disrupting the industry in the face of President Trump’s threatening stance on renewables at large.
Trump is in the opening stages dismantling the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era energy efficiency initiative that benchmarked the retirement of coal plants. In fact, Trump is going one step further and actually reopening public lands to oil and gas extraction, in addition to greenlighting the completion of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. Needless to say, Trump’s substantial budget cuts to the Energy Department and the EPA seem pedestrian at this point, though their ramifications will be felt for years to come.
But the solar industry is proving resilient while stretched on the rack of federal constraints, and Americans are still seeing the many advantages of transitioning to renewables materialize in real time.
The average person today is likely aware of the common solar buzzwords: solar panels, solar cars, climate change and maybe even Elon Musk. But there are a number of smaller-scale advancements currently under the radar that may soon be prevalent in cities across the United States, ones the federal government would have a hard time preventing.
Brooklyn Microgrid, for example, is a New York-based project that utilizes blockchain—the digital accounting and currency exchange system—for the purpose of activating consumers’ green energy transitions.
So how does it work?
Traditional energy consumption follows a strict supply chain involving electrical grids, power plants, utility companies, energy suppliers and various service providers that tack on additional fees and charges at each step of the process. In practice the only thing the customer cares about is being able to turn the lights off and on—everything else in the power chain is unknown for all intents and purposes.
But with Brooklyn Microgrid, residents with solar arrays on their rooftops opt into a peer-to-peer energy trading system that displaces utilities entirely. Say House A generates 110 percent of its electricity needs; what happens to the extra 10 percent it has on hand?
Some states mandate the method in which extra energy is sold back to utility companies in exchange for rebates on future electricity bills while others have no system in place for dealing with a transaction at all. For homeowners who don’t yet have battery storage devices installed on their properties, extra energy may be going to waste.
By using blockchain, Brooklyn Microgrid enables consumers to trade their excess energy on a private marketplace through a network of credits. House A can sell its extra energy credits to House B which may have only produced 90 percent of its electricity needs for a given month.
These microgrids are becoming commonplace in communities that hold shared values, effectively making every consumer an entrepreneur and an ecological champion. Extrapolated across many neighborhoods and cities, this groundswell has the potential for a measurable environmental impact in light of an administration that generally supports big business and fossil fuel-friendly organizations.
Each of these microgrids typically integrates directly into a larger electrical grid, but the innovators behind the Brooklyn Microgrid are hoping to one day create independent grids that operate autonomously by community. Germany, Australia and Bangladesh are also experimenting with similar designs and have seen early successes. A decentralized power commission would be a true free market augmentation of the current energy generation and transmission process, and would allow average consumers to meet the real-time demands of themselves and their neighbors.
Local businesses, educational facilities and larger municipal buildings are prime real estate for similar peer-to-peer and community-based energy trading, and the financial rewards are not only realized in reduced utility bills but in favorable publicity, an engaged populace and a collective sense of unity and direction.
A new tool from Google is facilitating this type of solar energy transition by equipping a growing number of consumers and businesses with the predictive models and financial estimates they need on hand before committing to such a big decision.
One of the largest barriers to entry for those interested in going solar is the fear of making a huge investment without the guarantee of an equitable payoff. The biggest wave of solar installations in the past was attributed to customers that were very aware of the technology and had the cash to afford an array, but this category of buyers has largely been depleted—now the industry must sign up new customers that are harder to convince and are naturally more skeptical.
Google’s Project Sunroof aims to alleviate these worries by using 3-D modeling software that illustrates whether a rooftop is a good candidate for solar panels. The answer is 80 percent are ideal candidates.
Factoring in weather and geographical variations, the size of buildings, projected energy demand, locations of nearby trees and other logistical considerations, Project Sunroof makes a convincing case that solar panels are economically and electrically viable options for a vast majority of consumers, especially those in California and Texas. Other states that are projected to lead the charge on the next wave of solar installations include Utah and South Carolina.
Combining this sort of technology with new developments in solar cell efficiency equates to a dramatic step forward for the solar industry.
MIT researchers have uncovered a way to make solar cells twice as efficient in converting sun rays into usable energy. A layer of photonic crystals absorbs sunlight then retains the very specific type of light a solar cell needs to convert energy while an optical filter reflects back into the atmosphere the light which it cannot use. This filtering process raises the bar for what is conceivably possible in the near future.
The experiments have proven effective in a lab environment and scaling up these advancements into a real-world scenario is in progress.
These discoveries have prompted many experts to declare solar’s growth destined with or without the federal government’s intervention, and it’s clear there’s a strong appetite for eco-friendly and local-level action. In that sense, highly efficient microgrids may rapidly expand into new markets, picking up new converts along the way. As solar costs drop further, the nation will in a matter of years reach a tipping point that puts its energy options into clearer focus, and the odds are distinctly in solar energy’s favor.