2013-01-30

Are These Spinning Blue Cones The Solar Panels Of The Future?

V3Solar has a brand-new solar panel design that they say will cost just 8 cents a kilowatt-hour, compared to 12 cents on average for the U.S. What they don’t have yet is a working prototype.

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.

The horizon is crowded with interesting new ideas for better ways to capture energy of the sun: space solar, ultraportable solar, microsolar, and solar biomimicry to name a few.

We’ll have to check in a year or so to see if CoolSpin is cool, or just spin.

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6 Comments

  • Maury Markowitz

    "they get rid of the need to track the sun"

    Right…

    "Fresnel lenses concentrate the light *dramatically* more than the simple lens you seem to be talking about"

    You've totally missed the point. To avoid "sciencey words", lets make this simple: in order to concentrate something, you have to take more of it and put it into somewhere less. That's the definition of "concentrate".

    So, how large is the *active* portion of the the V3 system? Let's call that 1.

    How large is the *passive* portion? About 1.1.

    So the maximum possible concentration is 1.1. Period.

    You can change the lens all you want, you can't change basic geometry.

  • Maury Markowitz

    Anyone with even the tiniest technical knowledge in the PV field will realize this can't possibly work. This is no more real than the "solar roadway" idiocy of a few years previous.

    The problem is simple to understand. The most expensive part of a PV system are the cells. So many people have tried to reduce the number of cells compared to the amount of light they collect. A normal panel has cells covering the entire surface, let's call that a "1x" system.

    Now imagine I take a mirror the same size as the panel and place it so the sun is reflected onto the panel. Now I'm getting "2x" light. If the cell converts all of that extra light into power, then I'm getting twice the power *per cell*. Since a mirror is less expensive than a cell, the cost per watt goes down.

    It's not like magnification is magically increasing the power output - there are cells that do that, but not the ones mentioned here. You're simply moving the space you collect light from from smart cells to dumb optics, that's the entire concept.

    In a more realistic scenario, you have a very large lens, anywhere from 10 to 1000x. Take the small one as an example, 10x is about the same as a magnifying glass. Now just think for a second... what happens when the ant you're looking at moves? You have to move the lens.

    And therein lies the rub - any sort of magnifier has to move in order to track the sun as it moves during the day. And the cost of the tracker, to date, has always been way higher than the price of a cell. Just buy more cells.

    So V3Solar claims they have invented a way around this - claims because they haven't actually built one. Ok, look at the image. What do you think the ratio of lens to cell is? Looks an awful lot like 1 to 1 to me. So this system gets just as much light as it would if you took the spinning lens system off the top. So it adds hardware that does nothing.

    Now, as I mentioned before, there is a slight gain in efficiency when you use concentration. But that is certainly not the case when you use the "cheapest kind of flat-panel Chinese printed PV". Quite the opposite, these panels normally *reduce* efficiency under concentration.

    So I call bogus on the concept, and the "independent technical reviewer". 

  • Burnsidhe

    From the documentation on the V3solar site it looks like a> they get rid of the need to track the sun and b> the 'spinning' part is the internal cone the solar cells are mounted on, to reduce the heat that reduces the efficiency of the solar cells. 

    Fresnel lenses concentrate the light *dramatically* more than the simple lens you seem to be talking about. V3solar makes no claims that the cells themselves are more efficient. The conic pyramid shape is the clever bit; with the lenses capturing as much diffuse and 'off center' light as possible, it doesn't have to track the sun at all, which means no expensive solar tracking devices are needed.

  • Ianhowes

    Good article and solid idea that will likely develop quite well. 

    Unfortunately the US has much more than 7MW of installed capacity, the current total is 4,383MW but this is nothing compared to haw far we have to go. The US needs 1,137,000 MW of installed capacity to keep the lights on. 4MW of more renewables will be a welcome addition!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S...