A solar cell is a device that converts sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect, which is when some materials react to being exposed to light by creating an electric current that can be collected for human use. As a result, solar cells can be considered the building blocks of solar panels, which in turn, can be considered the foundation of solar power.
As a result, it is exciting to hear that a pair of engineers at the University of New South Wales have managed to set a new world record with their solar cell, which managed to convert 34.5 percent of the sunlight to which it was exposed into electricity. This was possible because they abandoned the traditional design of the flat panel in order to embed their device inside a prism, which increased the amount of light to which it was exposed by splitting the sunlight into four separate rays. In a separate test that concentrated the amount of sunlight being shone upon their solar cell by using mirrors, the pair of engineers managed to achieve a conversion rate of more than 40 percent, thus proving that their design still has room for improvement.
Regardless, a conversion rate of 34.5 percent is exciting because no one thought that it would happen so soon. In fact, one recent German study predicted that it would not be achieved until 2050, which suggests that the engineers and scientists involved in solar power are well ahead of schedule. Although the new solar cell is far from being available as a commercial product on the open market, it does not mean that such products are not far from behind, which is something that will have enormous implications for not just our households but also our societies as a whole.
What Does Increasing Solar Cell Efficiency Mean for Our Homes?
1. First and foremost, increasing solar cell efficiency means that solar power will become cheaper and cheaper as an option for powering our homes. Although the more complex design of this new solar cell suggests that their future counterparts will have a sizable initial cost, the fact that they will be providing significant amounts of power free of charge means that solar power should be evaluated from a long-run rather than a short-run perspective. In short, when a homeowner evaluates the cost of standard options for powering their homes, they have to consider not just the initial cost of setting up the system but also the periodic costs for fuel as well as services. In contrast, solar power has greatly reduced periodic costs, meaning that it becomes cheaper than standard options as soon as the sum of its monthly savings surpasses its initial cost, which is something that can happen with surprising speed when the cost of fuel is high.
2. On a related note, this latest breakthrough means that solar panels promise to become both more efficient and more effective in the future, which should come as welcome news to those who are concerned about their performance. For example, increasing solar cell efficiency means that fewer solar cells will be needed to achieve the same results as their old and obsolete counterparts. This means a reduced need for solar cells in each solar panel, which in turn, means a reduced need for materials, manpower, and other inputs with which to make them. Something that translates to savings for homeowners because their products cost less to make than they did before.
3. One of the problems with solar power is that there are times when our homes are not exposed to sunlight, meaning that solar panels will not be able to produce electricity in those times. Fortunately, increasing solar cell efficiency means that they will be able to produce more electricity than what homeowners will need right away, meaning that the excess can be stored in rechargeable batteries. When their solar panels are not producing electricity because of either nightfall or gloomy weather conditions, homeowners can continue powering their homes with solar power by using the stores of these rechargeable batteries. Better still, homeowners who have charged up their rechargeable batteries by using their solar panels can then sell the excess to local utility companies, which is something that can make their solar panels even cheaper compared to standard options for powering their homes.
4. For some homeowners who are fed up with their utility companies, this could also mean greater independence for them in the future. After all, sunlight is something that can be found in a lot more places than connections to the utility systems to provide homes with electricity, meaning that homeowners will have more options when it comes to where they want to live. This is particularly true if solar cells continue to become more and more efficient, since that will make solar power competitive with other options for powering the home in regions with less and less sunlight on an average basis.
5. Finally, it is worth noting that there is one more example of how making homes more eco-friendly does not necessarily mean having to spend more without meaningful benefit for homeowners. Simply put, choosing energy-efficient options such as solar power are not just beneficial for the environment by cutting down on the consumption of scarce resources, but also beneficial for homeowners because they are helping them save so that their money can be put to much-better uses in other applications than paying for their household operating expenses.
With that said, it is important to note that predicting technological change is neither a simple nor a straightforward matter, meaning that even the best scientists can be wrong about what will happen in their chosen fields. Still, this should be seen as what it is, which is to say, an encouraging sign for what is to come as well as a useful reminder that better results for us and better results for the environment are not goals that have to come into conflict with one another.