How Solar Power Is Shaking Up Several Industries

The traditional energy business model is undergoing a revolution

28 June 2016

Your utility provider is nervous right now. And you don’t have to go any further than Google to figure out why. With solar installations on homes and office buildings increasing to never-before-seen levels, the solar industry is expected to contribute a larger share of renewable energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The future of the conventional energy industry is uncertain, to say the least. Solar energy stands poised to unleash a revolutionary shift in distribution, propelled by technology. Advances in cell efficiencies and energy storage are making the switch to solar ever more appealing for residential and commercial users, and electricity providers are increasingly irrelevant.

Meanwhile, utilities have handled the transition with varying degrees of acceptance. Some providers have been quick to offer financial incentives and loan programs, but others have fought tooth and nail against the expansion of the net-metering system, a popular rebate option that allows residents to sell back any extra power they generate.

Those are just the advances being made in traditional photovoltaics. Organic solar cells, composed of carbon-based polymers, are more flexible, cheaper, and thinner than traditional silicon cells.

This newest iteration of solar technology has the potential to shake up scores of industries including home appliances and manufacturing. Rather than being housed in clunky panels, organic solar cells can be shaped to fit just about any surface. And as Jeff Kettle, a lecturer in electronic engineering at Bangor University, in Maine, illuminates, they’ll also have the ability to capture indirect light—a huge advantage. They could be used almost anywhere, and particularly in areas where light conditions are poor, such as railways, mining stations, and reservoirs.

The changes in solar cell manufacturing are expected to affect many industries. There are hundreds of potential applications for self-powered devices, particularly when you consider that the advances are coming on the heels of the Internet of Things.

The IoT is expected to dramatically increase energy consumption. IoT objects are going to need more flexible power sources, if they’re not to be restricted to electric grids, and organic solar photovoltaics open up a wide range of possibilities for devices where plugging in isn’t possible. Meanwhile, switching to solar mitigates the potential drain IoT objects would put on the grid.

MORE EFFICIENT SYSTEMS

Hospitals are conspicuous energy users. Their heavy medical machinery, laundry rooms, and labs draw huge amounts of power from the grid. And unlike most other businesses, hospitals operate 24/7. Therefore, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, influenced by a presidential executive order that urged federal agencies to take aggressive action toward sustainability, has constructed solar arrays at more than a dozen VA facilities. The Kaiser Permanente health care system, meanwhile, stated last year that it was hoping to add solar arrays to 170 of its hospitals.

Perhaps the most striking phenomenon has been the development of the solar suitcase, a mobile array that can be used to power lighting and emergency equipment in remote areas—essentially, a pop-up hospital. It has been a boon to providers serving rural communities, and it wouldn’t be possible without advances in solar efficiency.

Along the same lines, data centers have benefited from strides made in solar efficiency. You may remember in 2011 when Google and other large tech companies came under fire for their huge carbon footprints. Although Google argued that cloud computing reduced emissions, its servers used electricity on par with that of a small country. The future of computing, however, might be much greener. MIT and the University of Massachusetts in Boston recently partnered to launch the Mass Net Zero Data Center, a facility in Holyoke that boasts zero emissions thanks to a 6-kilowatt solar array that powers it. Intel has been testing solar-powered centers, too, and a solar-powered cloud is looking more possible with every additional kilowatt-hour of photovoltaic efficiency.

But perhaps the most potentially disruptive changes have occurred from advances in battery technology. The goals of residential solar installers and electric car manufacturers dovetail nicely. As it stands, neither technology is efficient enough to eclipse the nonrenewable competition. Solar homes must stay grid-tied or suffer through blackouts; electric car owners must monitor acceleration to avoid battery drain. Electric vehicle owners, though, have long been drawn to renewable energy. A 2014 survey of EV owners conducted by the Center for Sustainable Energy, a nonprofit that works with policy makers, showed that 32 percent had solar panels installed in their homes, with 16 percent making plans to install soon. And with Tesla jumping in to create a home storage solution, the somewhat nebulous relationship between solar power and electric cars has been solidified.

The transition to solar technology might draw less resistance from the auto industry than that presented by energy providers. The Great Recession was hard on the industry, and in some ways that could be driving its urge to innovate. The transition is being called an “economic reset”—a chance to rethink outdated business strategies. That’s why we see, for example, Ford announcing its first solar-powered hybrid car. If other automakers follow suit, they’ll be better off for it.

Google and Apple have jumped into the fray—electric cars fit into their self-driving initiatives. Unless manufacturers act quickly, your next car could be solar-powered and designed by a Silicon Valley magnate.

Erin Vaughan, an IEEE graduate student member, is a blogger, gardener, and aspiring homeowner whose work can be read on Modernize.com, as well as Solar Power World and Solar Industry magazine. She lives in Austin, Texas, and writes about residential solar power and its effects on the energy industry.

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