Transparent solar panels could replace windows in the future. Here’s how:

Of course, transparent solar panels sound too good to be true. But they would have the potential to shift cities from major energy users to energy providers and could usher in a new era of clean energy revolution while preserving farmland and natural habitats that may one day be used for solar farms.

And, as the world moves toward a low-carbon future trying to curb the effects of climate change, solar energy should unquestionably be one of our strongest allies. But are transparent solar technologies viable? Could we really generate electricity from windows in office buildings, homes, car sunroofs, or even smartphones? 

What is ‘transparent solar energy’?

Transparent solar is a cutting-edge technology that gathers and uses light energy through windows or any glass surface, regardless of the angle. It has the potential to be a game-changer in terms of broadening the scope of solar.

In terms of engineering, researchers have created several means of transparent solar technology. Most of them function as transparent solar concentrators, which means they are made to absorb specific UV and infrared light wavelengths that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Then, transform them into energy capable of powering electronics.

This is also called photovoltaic glass, and it’s manufactured to provide a range of transparency. Back in 2014, researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) developed an entirely transparent solar concentrator that could convert almost any glass sheet or window into a PV cell.

By 2020, scientists in the United States and Europe have achieved 100 percent transparency for solar glass — one step closer to the goal of a sustainable future that could free us from the grid and the fossil fuel industry. 

What are the benefits?

See-through solar panels could be incredibly important as glass is practically everywhere. From the screen of your phone to skyscrapers, it’s estimated that there are 5 to 7 billion square meters of glass surfaces in the United States. It’s mind-blowing to think of the sheer amount of electricity that could be generated if we could tap into that power. 

With that in mind, it should also be noted that current conventional solar panels need quite a wide setup area as well as a significant initial cost. Because of these constraints, it is difficult to install them on buildings in metropolitan locations. Transparent solar panels, on the other hand, can be used as glass panels/windows in these areas, paving the way for net-zero energy buildings and helping cities meet climate goals and targets.

The future of high-tech windows

While the wide use of high-tech solar windows may lie in the somewhat distant future, there are some examples of the innovation already in use. For example, the Copenhagen International School’s design uses 12,000-hued but clear solar panels all over the surface of the building, producing 200 MWh of energy annually — more than half of the energy that the building consumes. 

Another recent example is the Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building on the campus of Michigan State University. It was renovated with the installation of 100 square feet of transparent solar glass panels above the building’s entryway. They generate enough electricity to power the lighting in its atrium.

Of course, there are some obstacles standing in the way of progress in this area. Before the technology can be scaled up, scientists need to increase its efficiency because there is an efficiency/transparency tradeoff. The more transparent the panels are, the less efficient they become, which is why see-through panels are not expected to replace the standard solar panels already being used. Either way, the technology is very interesting and could potentially help us get to a truly sustainable and greener future faster.

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