Flexible Electronics and Printable Solar Cells

We usually think of solar in terms of panels, flat sheets of polysilicon that are connected to the electric grid, and laid on top of homes or businesses at the cost of thousands of dollars.

As a result, financing like that of 1 Block off the Grid get big write-ups.

But that’s not how it’s going to go. Solar power is not something you will have to finance.

There are a host of “small solar” technologies, using plastic, and printing techniques, in the process of coming out of labs, all seeking funding. We don’t pay much attention to it because the industry on which it’s based, flexible electronics, is itself brand new.

But this is the real revolution of our time. This is the computer chip of the early 21st century.

I’ve been writing about what others have dubbed “the Internet of Things,” since 2003. The idea is that remote sensors and motes, single-chip devices with built-in wireless communications, could live on us, and among us, tracking what we have and our condition.

I underestimated what might happen.

Because once you can print this stuff, and once you integrate power technology into it, you have something completely different. Once devices can gather their own power, with a few added circuits, they don’t need batteries, and they don’t need the grid.

This idea of printing-and-sticking power onto what already exists is easily expanded. The number of things no longer connected to the grid, or to battery technology, starts growing exponentially. And it keeps growing.

Instead of having panels on your house, in five years you’ll buy something more like wallpaper, something that covers your walls and delivers power where it’s needed.

I have long felt that today’s electric utilities are similar to the phone utilities of the early 1970s. They didn’t know their business was changing, either. They didn’t see the Internet coming. They had no idea that their whole business model was becoming obsolete.

We’re going to have the same problems of non-cooperation from the electric utilities in the next generation we had from the Bells in the last. They only see their business as getting power from big plants and moving it into cities over long distances. They don’t understand that they’re going to be in the business of load-balancing, that collecting and distributing power, not generating and selling it, is going to be their business.

As with computing, this is going to happen quite suddenly. We’re in the “plug-compatible” point of the evolution right now. Standards are going to bring us into the “mini-computer” part of the curve quite quickly, but the equivalent of a microchip evolution is right around the corner, and when that gets productized, anywhere from 3 to 5 years from now, watch out.

Imagine. Electronics and power built into everything you buy, everything you touch, with the grid used mainly for balancing the load, buying as well as selling power from homes and offices. The electric company is not going to disappear, but unless it can find other markets for a lot of that generation they will be circling the drain.

And with that will come a new kind of prosperity.


Below is a video that displays one of the many directions solar is heading.


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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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