How Do Solar Panels Store Energy – Modified solar panels that work at night can generate enough energy to charge a phone or run an LED light, obviating the need to store energy in batteries in off-grid locations.
Simply put, solar power is created when the sun transfers energy to a very cool solar panel. The panel, called solar cells, is usually made of low silicon semiconductor material. When light shines on this material, it produces an electric current.
At night, the solar panels transfer heat to space, which has a temperature of about 3 Kelvin (-270.15°C), because the heat moves in the direction of lower temperature. This makes the solar panel cooler than the night air, a temperature difference that can be used to make electricity.
To do this, Shanhui Fan of Stanford University in California and his colleagues modified an off-the-shelf solar cell by adding a thermoelectric generator, a device that generates currents from temperature differences.
“The solar panel has become a very efficient thermal cooler,” Fan said. “Therefore, the solar panel can reach a temperature lower than the ambient air temperature at night, which is an unusual opportunity to harvest electricity.”
When shown against a clear night sky, the modified solar cell produced an electrical output of 50 milliwatts per square meter. This is only 0.04 percent of the power output of a typical solar cell during the day. But 50 milliwatts per square meter allows low power devices like a phone charger or low watt LED light to work.
“The nice thing about this approach is that at night you have a direct power source that requires no battery storage,” Fan said. Batteries can be expensive and mediocre. They require a lot of energy to produce and can cause water and air pollution if not disposed of properly.
While solar cells are useful at night in off-grid locations for some low-energy tasks, their current performance means they are unlikely to replace the existing bottom-up energy structure. “So the potential for large power generation is very low,” says Ken Duros at the University of Liverpool, UK.
Fan and his team say the setup can be developed to produce more power and that there are no inherent problems in scaling the system to a commercial product one day. Energy storage can make facilities like this solar farm in Oxford, Maine, more profitable by allowing them to store electricity for cloudy days. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukati
Kerry Rippy does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from, any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant links outside the academic profession.
The cost of generating wind and solar power has fallen dramatically in recent decades. This is one reason why the US Department of Energy projects that renewable energy will be the fastest growing energy source in the US by 2050.
However, it is very expensive to store energy. And because renewable electricity generation is not available all the time – it happens when the wind blows or the sun shines – storage is essential.
As a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I work with the federal government and private industry to develop renewable energy storage technologies. In a recent report, researchers at NREL estimate that there is potential to increase US renewable energy storage capacity by 3,000% by 2050.
From alkaline batteries for small electronics to lithium-ion batteries for cars and laptops, most people use batteries in many aspects of their daily lives. But there is still a lot of room for growth.
High-capacity batteries with long discharge times – up to 10 hours – are, for example, valuable for storing solar energy at night or increasing the range of electric vehicles. Currently, such batteries are not used. However, according to recent projections, 100 gigawatts of these batteries will be installed by 2050. By comparison, this is more than 50 times the production capacity of the Hoover Dam. This could have a major impact on the viability of renewable energy.
One of the biggest obstacles is the limited supply of lithium and cobalt currently needed to make lightweight, powerful batteries. According to some estimates, about 10% of the world’s lithium and all the world’s cobalt reserves will be exhausted by 2050.
In addition, about 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Congo, which has long been documented as inhumane.
Scientists are working to develop ways to recycle lithium and cobalt batteries and to design batteries based on other materials. Tesla plans to produce cobalt-free batteries in the next few years. Others seek to replace sodium with lithium, which has similar properties to lithium but is more abundant.
Securing batteries is another priority. One area of development is electrolytes – the medium, often liquid, that allows electrical charge to flow from the anode or negative terminal of a battery to the cathode or positive terminal.
When a battery is used, the charged particles in the electrolyte move to balance the electrical charge leaving the battery. Electrolytes often contain flammable substances. If they go out, the battery can overheat and burn or melt.
Scientists are developing solid electrolytes, which can make batteries stronger. It is much more difficult for particles to move through solids than liquids, but exciting lab-scale results suggest that these batteries could be ready for use in electric vehicles in the coming years, with a target commercialization date as early as 2026.
While solid-state batteries are ideal for consumer electronics and electric vehicles, scientists are pursuing an all-liquid design called flow batteries for large-scale energy storage.
A typical flow battery consists of two tanks of fluids pumped behind a membrane held between two electrodes. Qi and Koenig, 2017, CC BY
In these devices both electrolyte and electrons are liquids. This allows for very fast charging and makes it easy to manufacture very large batteries. Currently, these systems are very expensive, but research will continue to bring the price down.
Other renewable energy storage solutions cost less than batteries in some cases. Concentrated solar power plants, for example, use mirrors to focus sunlight, which heats hundreds or thousands of tons of salt until it melts. This molten salt is then used to power an electric generator, as well as coal or nuclear power to heat the steam and power the generator. ,
This heating material can be collected to generate electricity when it is cloudy or at night. This method allows concentrated solar power to work all day.
Check a molten salt valve for corrosion in Sandia’s molten salt test loop. Randy Montoya, Sandia Labs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
This idea can be adapted for use with solar power generation technologies. For example, electricity generated from wind power can be used to heat salt for later use when there is no wind.
Concentrating solar energy is still very expensive. To compete with other forms of energy generation and storage, it must be more efficient. One way to achieve this is to increase the temperature at which the salt is heated, allowing for more efficient power generation. Unfortunately, currently used salts are not stable at high temperatures. Researchers are working to develop new salts or other materials that can withstand temperatures up to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (705 C).
A key idea on how to achieve higher temperatures involves heating sand instead of salt, which can withstand higher temperatures. The sand is then moved via conveyor belts from the heating area to storage. The Department of Energy recently announced funding for a pilot solar plant based on this concept.
Batteries are useful for short-term energy storage and concentrated solar power plants help stabilize the power grid. However, resources require large amounts of energy to be stored for an indefinite period of time. It is a substitute for renewable fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia. When wind turbines and solar panels generate more electricity than the utility’s customers need, utilities store energy by producing excess energy from these fuels.
Hydrogen and ammonia have more energy per pound than batteries, so they work where batteries don’t. For example, they can be used for delivering heavy loads and handling heavy equipment and for rocket fuel.
Today, most of these fuels are made from natural gas or other non-renewable fossil fuels through very inefficient reactions. Although we think of it as a green fuel, most hydrogen gas today is made from natural gas.
Scientists are looking for ways to make hydrogen and other fuels using renewable electricity. For example, it is possible to make hydrogen fuel by splitting water molecules with electricity. The biggest challenge is to scale up the process to make it efficient and economical. The potential payoff is huge: inexhaustible, completely renewable energy.
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