Last Updated Aug 15, 2017 · Written by Rob Schneider
Solar panels have been with us for a while now. They have come down in price and are more efficient than ever. That's not the only thing that's changed. Manufacturers are coming up with clever solar tiles that look like standard roofing materials. We take a look at the evolution of solar panels and how we've arrived at today's solar technology.
Many people don't realise how long the photovoltaic effect (what makes solar panels work) has been around. It was first discovered in 1839, but the technology did not exist to make it viable. The first solar cell was made in 1883. An inventor, Charles Fritts, coated a solar cell with selenium and gold. It worked, but with only 1 to 2 per cent efficiency.
The first commercial solar panels came on the market in 1953. These were silicon solar cells that had an efficiency of about 6 per cent. They were too expensive, but it was a start. In 1958, the first solar powered satellite, Vanguard I, was launched. This piqued the public's interest in solar power.
By the 1970s, demand for solar power had grown and prices came down from (US) $100 per watt to around $20 to $40 per watt. They were still expensive, but that was just the start.
In 1982, the first "solar park" was built in Hesperia, California. At full capacity, the solar park could produce 1000 kilowatts per hour. More solar parks followed in the U.S. and Europe, many of which have larger capacities than the first solar park.
Research continued and between 1994 and 1999, new levels of efficiency were achieved. Solar panels exceeded 30 per cent efficiency. At the turn of the century, "thin film" solar panels came on the market. These had 32 per cent efficiency.
Solar panels became more popular and the boom in solar panel installations began in 2005. More solar power installers became available and Australia introduced Small Scale Technology Certificates (STCs) that could be exchanged for discounts on solar panels. Between the STCs and the savings on energy, a solar power system could have a "payback period" of as little as five years in some parts of the country. For more information, read Costing Your Solar Power Project.
We've come a long way since 1839. Today, solar panels are more efficient and less expensive than ever before, but that's not the end of the story. In 2015, solar cells as thin as a sheet of paper were produced. These have a 20 per cent power efficiency and can produce up to 50 watts of power per square metre. They are inexpensive to produce and have been a boon to developing countries, where traditional solar panels are too expensive for the average person.
In 2016, a research team from the University of California, Berkeley and the Australian National University discovered a new nanomaterial property. Called magnetic hyperbolic dispersion, it can produce electricity without the need for sunlight. Heat is the source that produces electricity.
Australia has been a major player in solar power. In 2016, the University of New South Wales created a new solar cell configuration that achieved a world record for efficiency. The new solar cell has 34.5 per cent efficiency for unfocused sunlight.
Solar panels now may not have to be installed on the roof anymore. Thin film solar cells have made it possible to create solar house tiles.
An Australian company, Monier, already is producing solar roof tiles. 375 tiles can produce 5 kilowatts of power. That's around 10 per cent of the average roof area.
Another Australian company, Tractile is also producing solar roof shingles. Tractile's system can produce both hot water and solar energy. According to their website, the Tractile system is a "four-in-one" system that also provides insulation.
The Tesla Solar Roof is the first on the Australian market to produce solar roof tiles that look like standard roof tiles. They are set to come in four designs:
At the moment, you can preorder Tesla roofing products in Australia. They come with a warranty that lasts as long as you own your house. According to the website, Tesla solar roof tiles are three times tougher than standard roof tiles. Tesla also manufactures solar storage batteries, so you have extra electricity after dark.
These are three solar roof tiles that are available today. Roof tiles are the future of solar energy and more brands will probably become available in the near future. While they cost more than standard tiles, they look good on the roof and can pay for themselves over time with reduced electricity bills. Depending on the amount of solar tiles you buy, you may not need to pay for electricity at all.
We have more solar options in Australia than ever before. Why pay for electricity when you can install solar panels or solar tiles and get your electricity for free?
You might also like: The incremental benefits of financing a solar powered home, 6 ways that you can go solar