By Anya Kamenetz
We're all used to the pictures of roofs or fields covered with solar panels. But what if a new form factor could fundamentally change how solar works? A company called V3Solar has announced a brand new solar panel design--called the CoolSpin--that it says will make power 34% cheaper than the cheapest existing solar panels, putting the output well below the cost of generating even coal (8 cents versus 12 cents a kilowatt-hour, respectively). An independent technical reviewer agrees with the efficiency of their design. Could this be the breakthrough that the solar industry has been waiting for?
A big maybe. It's certainly a cool looking design. The installations look like blue mushrooms. On top is a layer of lenses, which concentrate the energy coming in up to 20 times. They're Fresnel lenses, an extra-thin, multipart lens invented in the 1790s for use on lighthouses, which concentrate a small lantern into a powerful beam. Also like lighthouses, the cones rotate. This way they can take the sun coming in from all directions.
The spinning and the lenses remove two problems found in most low-cost flat-panel solar installations: They usually face in only one direction on a roof and can only get optimal energy from the sun a few hours a day at best, or else they need high-cost mechanical and electronic tracking mechanisms. The spinning also cools the panels by throwing them quickly from light into shade--most solar concentrating designs must use water or mechanical cooling, which gets expensive.
The shape, spinning, and lenses layered on top, taken together, may boost the cells' performance many times over. Finally, the whole thing is self-contained and can be mounted on a metal pole like a parking meter, rather than needing special racks, which lowers the cost as well and potentially makes it a good fit for small distributed energy installations, like in cities.
While still lacking a working prototype, the company claims to have 4 gigawatts of pre-orders. The current total installed solar in the U.S. is only 7 gigawatts, so embrace that stat (and the ones about how efficient the panels are) with a healthy dose of skepticism. If there's anything we've learned, it's that advances in clean energy come in tiny increments. A new solar panel design that's both more efficient and cheaper can't be considered anything but a pipe dream until it's tested in the field. But even if V3Solar's design doesn't live up to its promise, all new ideas are welcome until we get to 100% renewable energy.
We'll have to check in a year or so to see if CoolSpin is cool, or just spin.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.