Once upon a time, solar technology wasn’t very competitive with fossil fuels. The solar panels weren’t as efficient and took up a lot of space. They couldn’t provide enough power. However, that changed rapidly. Today, solar power has become competitive and cost-effective. With the proper maintenance and setup, solar lighting is turning into the future of how cities and homes light up in the dark.
However, where does the industry go from there? For most of its existence, solar power relied on the pursuit of efficiency to provide a goal for its innovation and development. Now that such a goal has been achieved, what’s next for the industry? Has it peaked?
Where Do We Go From Here?
The industry arguably hasn’t peaked. While it can now stand toe to toe against fossil fuel as an energy source, that’s not where the game ends. Even greater efficiency is still a potential target, especially if solar power is to become the world’s primary source of energy. However, what comes next might be a surprise. Experts speculate that the next major innovation target for solar lighting could be becoming lightweight.
“Why,” one might be tempted to ask, “would becoming lighter be a goal?”
The answer is relatively simple: tapping into niche markets. Solar panels tend to be big. They’re huge affairs and decked out in space-eating arrays on rooftops and open fields if you need to power a whole building. If you’re powering something like a Bluesmart light, they’re much smaller. However, they’re still not exactly small enough to fit in your pocket. The panels also aren’t able to flex much, so they can’t bend to better survive rough weather.
Expanding the Market
Smaller solar panels can go a long way to expanding the market of solar lighting. Increasing the power output makes them more attractive for households or businesses that consume a lot of power. Decreasing the size of the physical package makes it easier to sell it to places where space is limited and there’s not a lot of open ground to build solar farms on. That’s not where it could all end, though.
When the car became as fast and as reliable as the horse, the auto industry didn’t stop making their products better. Neither should solar lighting. If the industry can make them even smaller and lighter, the new applications could be revolutionary.
Improved Small Lights
We have solar panels small enough for personal lighting, but they’re also heavier than what we’re used to for things like flashlights. If they can be made small enough to charge a portable light without making it bulkier to hold, it makes them a more attractive alternative to batteries. Integrate them into a smart system that can respond to voice commands or wireless signals, and you have something that could make an impact on the market.
Another potential area where lighter lights might expand is in fashion. Chemical batteries limit the designs they can be integrated into without appearing obtrusive. There is also the issue of charging these batteries or washing wearable technology that has electrical components.
Solar lighting could change this situation. The panels would be lighter than the usual power setups and could be used. While they’ll still need a battery to store the power, the reduction in bulk can go a long way to adding more design options. In addition, the panels themselves can be dressed up and used as an element in the aesthetic design.
Lighter, thinner solar panels could be used on the frames of windows or lining the walls of buildings, allowing them to power the interior lights without adding bulk. This could significantly reduce the space needed and the amount of power that something like an office building needs to draw from the grid. The installation might be costly, but it should pay for itself over time.
Military Power Source
Military applications are also possible. There are some defense companies that believe solar power panels might replace portable batteries for powering field equipment on soldiers. The reduced weight would also make the kit lighter since a significant portion of the weight of a modern soldier’s kit is batteries.
How would the industry achieve this, though? One possible answer is already here. Thin-film technologies that can act as alternatives to silicon are known, but they’re not as efficient. However, in terms of research and development, they’re far behind on the development curve. This means that there is still room to improve and when that improvement comes, it could revolutionize the industry.
These thin films are more flexible and lighter than silicon panels. They could potentially be more effective for the task than what’s currently in use, though this part is unknown. Early on, silicon got a boost due to greater amounts of research money coming in. If thin-film tech gets a boost in research funding, that could easily change.
Solar lighting has arguably achieved parity with fossil fuel lights. However, the development of technology shouldn’t stop there. Going smaller, lighter, and more flexible could open up new applications and markets. We haven’t yet hit peak solar tech.