AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference: Solar Energy on the Rise


File photo, solar panels.

Solar energy is on the rise in the U.S. and on track toward fulfilling more of our energy needs, but considerable barriers remain: So said participants in a panel discussion, "Advanced Terrestrial Energy Technologies: Generation, Storage, Distribution," at AIAA's Propulsion & Energy Forum in Cleveland.

Advances signaling a bright future for solar and other renewable energies include "smart grids" that optimize energy transmission and control; improvements in photovoltaic film that allow for better integration of solar collection technology into existing structures; and a larger inclusion of renewables in the power grid. James Soeder, the senior technologist for power at NASA Glenn, told the audience that including more renewable energy in the existing power mix means that "as we go forward, the grid shrinks." According to Soeder, this will lead to small grids - instead of large, regionally centered power plants, we can start to use "community microgrids, with wind and solar assets that can be remotely dispatched by autonomous controls," making them more localized, smaller and safer.

Ina T. Martin, director of operations at the Materials for Optoelectronic Research and Education Center located at Case Western Reserve University, shared Soeder's optimism for a renewable future. She discussed the emerging solar technologies that will make energy cheaper for consumers, saying silicon would be the key asset for future solar energy development. Martin noted that it is the most abundant material that can be used in the solar enterprise, and that "for solar to bump up, you need to scale up with materials readily available." Martin said there is a lot of concern about finding the right thickness of solar film for use in systems. She also predicted that "increases in capacity will decrease cost by 20%."

Barriers to further development of solar and renewable energy, according to the panel, are lack of government funding; lack of venture capital, given negative news reporting on companies such as Solyndra; concerns about manufacturing better quality panels and substrates; concerns about securing transmission facilities and lines; a need to better educate the future workforce on how to create affordable technologies; and a need to ramp up basic research into materials and systems. Durability of the products is also a concern - Emily Pentzer, a professor of chemistry at Case Western Reserve University, noted that the average lifespan of a thin solar film component is measured in "in days and weeks if not protected, and up to three years if protected." Researchers will have to keep finding ways to expand that lifetime, she said.

Despite the barriers, said Penzer, the optimism about solar power is so contagious that "the market for building integrated and building applied photovoltaics is expected to have an annual growth rate of greater than 41% by 2016."

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

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