New solar technology tests the waters with promises of cheaper energy

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New solar technology tests the waters

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April 23, 2009 A new solar technology is not only taking a fresh approach to capturing the sun’s energy, it is also promising to produce electricity at a comparable cost to fossil fuel generators. The liquid solar array power generator (LSA), made predominantly from plastic, floats on water.

Each LSA panel has a tiny area of silicon photovoltaic cells on the water’s surface with a large rotating plastic focusing-lens above, which tracks the sun. According to the technology’s developers, Sunengy, the water plays an important role in cooling the silicon cells.

The lens can also be submerged when rotated fully to protect it during stormy weather and high winds, in particular. At 2mm thick, the lens may appear flimsy but is robust enough to survive winds of more than 100mph due to its unique method of using water, as part of the structure, to protect it.

The water has another use, too. Coated in a special self-cleaning surface, the lens can be washed of dust or salt simply by dunking it, via its sun-tracking mechanism, into the drink.

More than its novel design, the LSA technology can potentially match the cost of producing fossil fuel. According to Sunengy, the LSA can cut the cost of raw solar electricity in the short term from USD$5/W to USD$1.30/W and, in the longer term, to below US$0.60/W, under ideal conditions (this corresponds to about 3 US cents /kWhr).

Gizmag has recently reported on $1/W solar systems, which is seen as the price parity point with fossil fuel-based energy. The LSA, if it is successful, improves on this and would give the argument for using solar energy a significant boost.

The cost of the thin plastic sheet is also extremely low, particularly when compared to the silicon and glass panels used in conventional photovoltaic systems. In addition, the LSA system tracks the sun with high efficiency cells, generating more uniform power than conventional flat PV systems across the day.

Sunengy has produced a proof-of-concept working model and 3D computer design. The company estimates the system should achieve a return on investment within 15 months, helped by the fact that all the major specialized components are available off the shelf. Sunengy believes commercial sales could begin in one to three years.

Sunengy believes the system is suited to large-scale distributed electricity generation on the coast, reservoirs or lakes within 40 degrees of the equator – in fact, anywhere really where there’s good sun, plenty of water and not too many surfers.

Paul Best

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