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Researchers Create the Largest See-Through Solar Module Ever Produced

Homeowners associations are notoriously resistant to solar, often banning roof-top installations that conflict with their aesthetic values. But what if you could install an invisible solar system on your home that no one knows is there?

Last week, researchers announced they had produced the largest see-through organic solar module to date — a 170 square centimeter functioning module that is 14 times larger than the last iteration. The technology was produced through a collaboration with researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the organic solar company New Energy Technologies.

Organic solar technologies — often called plastic solar — utilize conductive polymers that allow for flexible cells and modules. Researchers are applying these unique polymers onto a see-through substrate that can be applied to glass:

Once electricity-generating polymers are applied to a material surface, the resultant effect is the production of an OPV cell. The prospect of SolarWindow™ products generating electricity on see-through glass is made possible by way of the unique architecture associated with this fabrication of the OPV device.

The technology was initially produced in a laboratory at the University of South Florida.

Research like this coming out of our nation’s laboratories is exciting. But we need to be extraordinarily cautious when evaluating the commercial viability of this technology.

Unlike traditional solar, commercial organic solar devices have very low efficiencies (4 to 5%) and a lifetime of a few years, currently hindering their market opportunities. For now, organic solar has not been able to break outside the portable power market (backpacks, canopies, consumer electronics) because of limited technological performance. Leading companies like Konarka, which scaled up manufacturing capacity quickly in the hopes of capturing a large market share, havefound it difficult to sell products beyond very niche applications.

The efficiency of this particular technology is extraordinarily low — about a half a percent. That’s no where close to where it needs to be for commercial success. The company developing the SolarWindow, New Energy Technologies, calls the record-breaking size “progress in addressing an important hurdle to commercialization – scale-up.”

Don’t be fooled by this slick messaging: This is an early piece of research that still doesn’t bring the technology anywhere close to commercial deployment.

And this brings us to a point we continually make on this blog. Supporting R&D for innovative technologies like this is extraordinarily important for the future of this country. But many of these lab-scale breakthroughs are not going to help us address our energy challenges today. The most dramatic impacts will come through proven, financeable, commercially deployable technologies — with incremental innovation being the primary driver to drive down costs.

So for the time being, convincing your homeowner’s association to approve solar is a far better option than waiting for this solar window to hit the shelves of your local home improvement store.

This article was originally published on Climate Progress and was republished with permission.

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