Powered by the Sun: Solar City and Silevo

solar2Elon Musk is at it again, this time with clean, renewable energy. Just yesterday, he announced that Solar City (the solar installation company that he chairs) plans to acquire a startup called Silevo. This producer of high-efficiency panels was acquired for $200 million (plus up to $150 million more if the company meets certain goals), and Musk now plans to build a huge factory to produce their panels as part of a strategy that will make solar power “way cheaper” than power from fossil fuels.

Solar City is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing solar installers, largely as a result of its innovative business model. Conceived by Musk as another cost-reducing gesture, the company allows homeowners and businesses to avoid any up-front cost. If its plans pan out, it will also become a major manufacturer of solar panels, with by far the largest factory in the U.S.

https://i2.wp.com/images.fastcompany.com/upload/620-most-innovative-companies-solar-city.jpgThe acquisition makes sense given that Silevo’s technology has the potential to reduce the cost of installing solar panels, Solar City’s main business. But the decision to build a huge factory in the U.S. seems daring – especially given the recent failures of other U.S.-based solar manufacturers in the face of competition from Asia. Ultimately, however, Solar City may have little choice, since it needs to find ways to reduce costs to keep growing.

Silevo produces solar panels that are roughly 15 to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones thanks to the use of thin films of silicon – which increase efficiency by helping electrons flow more freely out of the material – and copper rather than silver electrodes to save costs. Higher efficiency can yield big savings on installation costs, which often exceed the cost of the panels themselves, because fewer panels are needed to generate a given amount of power.

http://gigaom2.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/silevo-single-buss-bar-cell.jpgSilevo isn’t the only company to produce high-efficiency solar cells. A version made by Panasonic is just as efficient, and SunPower makes ones that are significantly more so. But Silevo claims that its panels could be made as cheaply as conventional ones if they could scale their production capacity up from their current 32 megawatts to the factory Musk has planned, which is expected to produce 1,000 megawatts or more.

The factory plan mirrors an idea Musk introduced at one of his other companies, Tesla Motors, which is building a huge “gigafactory” that he says will reduce the cost of batteries for electric cars. The proposed plant would have more lithium-ion battery capacity than all current factories combined. And combined with Musk’s release of the patents, which he hopes will speed development, it is clear Musk has both eyes on making clean technology cheaper.

Not sure, but I think it’s fair to say Musk just became my hero! Not only is he all about the development of grand ideas, he is clearly willing to sacrifice profit and a monopolistic grasp on technologies in order to see them come to fruition.

Source: technologyreview.com

Powered by the Sun: Solar-Powered Roads

solar_roadsCurrently, there are nearly 30,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles) of roads in the United States. And by some estimates, there are also as many as 2 billion parking spaces. That works out to some 50,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) of usable surface that is just soaking up sun all day long. So why not put it to use generating solar power? That’s the question a entrepreneurial couple named Scott and Julie Brusaw asked themselves, and then proceeded to launch a solar startup named Solar Roadways to see it through.

Their concept for a solar road surface has the potential to produce more renewable energy than the entire country uses. In fact, they’ve actually already developed a working prototype that’s been installed in a parking lot, and they’re now crowdsourcing funds in order to tweak the design and move towards production. Once completed, they hope to re-pave the country with custom, glass-covered solar panels that are strong enough to drive on while generating enough power to perform a range of functions.

solar_roads1These include providing lighting through a series of LEDs that make road lines and signs that help reduce nighttime accidents. Embedded heating elements also melt ice and snow and are ideal for winter conditions. The surface could also be used to charge electric vehicles as oppose to fossil fuels, and future technology could even allow for charging whilst driving via mutual induction panels. Amazingly, the team also found that car headlights can produce energy in the panels, so cars driving around at night would be producing some electricity.

Since 2006, Solar Roadways has designed and developed hexagonal glass solar panels studded with LED lights that could be installed on a variety of surfaces such as roads, pavements and playgrounds. These panels would more than pay for themselves and would benefit both businesses and homeowners as the energy generated from driveways and parking lots could be used to power buildings, and any excess can be sold back to the grid.

solar_roads3A glass surface may sound fragile, but the prototypes have been extensively tested and were found to be able to easily withstand cars, fully loaded trucks, and even 250,000-pound oil drilling equipment. The textured surface means it isn’t slippery, and since it can self-power small heaters inside to melt ice in winter, it’s supposedly safer than an ordinary road. As Scott Brusaw put it:

You first mention glass, people think of your kitchen window. But think of bulletproof glass or bomb resistant glass. You can make it any way you want. Basically bulletproof glass is several sheets of tempered glass laminated together. That’s what we have, only our glass is a half inch thick, and tempered, and laminated.

Recycled materials can also be used to produce the panels; the prototypes were constructed using 10% recycled glass. All of the panels will be wired up, so faults can be easily detected and repaired. They team have also designed a place to stash power cables, called “Cable Corridors”, which would allow easy access by utility workers. Furthermore, they also believe that these corridors could be used to house fiber optic cables for high-speed internet.

solar_roads2Obviously, this project isn’t going to be cheap, but Solar Roadways has already surpassed their goal of raising $1 million on their indiegogo page (they have managed to raise a total of $1,265,994 as of this articles publication). With this money, they will now be able to hire engineers, make final modifications, and move from prototype to production. They hope to begin installing projects at the end of the year, but a significantly larger amount of money would be required if they were to try to cover all the roads in the US!

However, given the increasing demand for solar technology and the numerous ways it can help to reduce our impact on the environment, it would not be surprising to see companies similar to Solar Roadways emerge in the next few years. It would also not be surprising to see a great deal of towns, municipalities and entire countries to start investing in the technology in the near future to meet their existing and projected power needs. After all, what is better than cheap, abundant, and renewable energy that pretty much provides itself?

For more info, check out Solar Roadways website and their Indiegogo campaign page. Though they have already surpassed their goal of $1 startup dollars, there is still five days to donate, if you feel inclined. And be sure check out their promotional video below:

Sources: iflscience.com, fastcoexist.com, solarroadways.com, indiegogo.com