"Is the technology ready?” Anthony Parisi asked in his 1979 The New York Times piece, Solar Power – The Skies Have Not Yet Opened. Thirty-seven years later, this remains the fundamental question surrounding solar power. Contrary to popular belief, solar technology is not a new phenomenon. By 1954, a photovoltaic cell could convert sunlight directly to power small electrical equipment. By 1977, enough solar power was being produced to power approximately 500 homes. Today, solar energy accounts for only 0.11% of estimated energy production. Although 76% of all Americans support the domestic expansion of solar energy in a Gallup poll, solar energy has yet to shift significantly from our dependency on oil.
The biggest hurdle to the implementation of solar panels is their up-front cost. There has been much debate in which structure of solar energy is the most efficient. Gauging efficiency is very straightforward, and it is measured in kilowatt hours. Typically, one kilowatt hour can power an electric stove or oven for one hour. There are two types of solar power arrangements directed towards maximizing kilowatt hours. The first is centralized production in the form of solar farms, and then putting solar energy into the grid like any other electricity. The second option adopts decentralized production by installing solar panels on roofs of mostly residential structures. While a study by the Brattle Group found that centralized production at a solar farm results in energy priced at 6.6¢ to 11.7¢ per kilowatt hour in contrast to 12.3¢ to 19.3¢ per kilowatt hour on consumer rooftops, additional consumer benefits were not considered including consumers becoming self-sufficient and potential profits from states buying back their energy. This information relies on the assumption that solar cells are opaque and usually in the case of decentralized solar production placed on building roofs, but a company called Ubiquitous Energy is challenging that assumption.
Ubiquitous Energy created a completely transparent solar cell in the form of clear film, which means solar cells can be placed on almost all surfaces. According to Richard Lunt, the co-founder of Ubiquitous Energy, the key lies in “harvesting the parts of the solar spectrum we can’t see, namely the ultraviolet and near infrared parts of the solar spectrum.” This is a huge breakthrough considering past efforts to make solar cells transparent had shrunken the components of the solar cell itself.” Ubiquitous Energy also stated that even though the solar cells are only capturing part of the solar spectrum, the cells have the potential to be 22% effective compared to the 30% effectiveness of traditional solar panels. Their current pilot facility can produce cells at 11% effectiveness. The only possible hurdle that they did not address, mentioned in the article Photovoltaic Cells: Converting Photons to Electrons, is the storage of energy when the device is not in direct sunlight. While this technology has limitless possibilities, Ubiquitous Energy wants to start small by making screens for mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads so they may never need a charge.
It is an exciting prospect to not be tethered to our mobile phone chargers in the near future, but the more important feature is that this technology makes solar energy viable for places with a high population density. By putting this film on buildings, it is now possible to make all of the vertical spaces that were unable to harvest solar energy not only sustainable, but to even export excess energy. This innovation is particularly great for urban use with the feasibility to retro-fit older buildings, making it attractive for both owners and landlords to implement this technology in their buildings. It expands electricity generation to individual buildings – a major advantage in the event of a natural disaster because all the electrical generation is more spread out throughout any city. The New York City Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Recovery also cited “work[ing] with public and private partners to scale up distributed generation and micro-grids” as an initiative to reduce outages. They specifically address solar photovoltaic systems: “examination of cost-effective applications is needed, including exploring photovoltaic systems in city owned building complexes as well as utilities incorporating micro-grid expansion into their planning.” This study was published before transparent solar cells were invented, so it is anticipated that the New York City Special Initative on Rebuilding and Recovery will place more emphasis on integrating transparent solar cells into our existing built structures.
Incorporating transparent solar cells on windows and other clear surfaces throughout the city is universally beneficial, with consumers of power able to lower, eliminate, or even make a profit off installing transparent solar cells on their building. It will even benefit those who do not install solar cells because the price of energy will go down due to decentralized production. Solar technology benefits all energy users including businesses with retail locations, office spaces, as well as the government.
The City of New York has thousands of municipal buildings, and switching to solar energy will reduce expenditures by shrinking or eliminating their utility bill. Sectors against this innovation would be those who source, produce and deliver energy from the traditional sources, such as ConEd and other energy service providers because the market price of energy would plummet drastically due to decreased demand.
It is expected larger taller structures will be able to place more solar cells on their vertical space, but for single family homes or low-lying structures, a combination of transparent solar cells and traditional opaque solar cells will be more viable.
Technology has evolved to make solar cells the right choice to preserve our environment and reduce our carbon footprint. More convenient than the traditional forms of energy production, transparent solar cells make solar power and because it has nearly limitless implementation possibilities, it puts the power of energy production into the hands of the consumer. Solar technology will finally answer Anthony Parisi’s question, and ensure our future is one of clean air and clear horizons.
By Erika Smithson
Erika Smithson is a Public Affairs major with minors in Communications, Political Science, and Law & Policy. This paper was written for PAF 3442: Cities and Sustainability, taught by Professor Samantha MacBride. It is part of a larger examination on how we can create more sustainable infrastructure for New York City.