How new materials can make them cheaper and better than ever

The solar panels of 2022 are like the clunky cell phones of the 1990s. Much more is possible with the same underlying technology.

Australia is likely to play a key role in global progress. For decades we have been at the forefront of the development and deployment of solar technology. For 30 of the last 40 years we have held the performance record for silicon solar cells. We now have more solar energy per capita than any other OECD country and meet almost 15 percent of our electricity needs. More than 80 percent of the world’s new solar modules are based on the PERC cell, a technology developed in Australia.

What’s Next for Solar? Hundreds of researchers across Australia are focused on two goals: to further reduce costs and to generate as much electricity as possible from incoming sunlight.

Why does solar need improvement?

Solar energy has the potential to transform our industries, transportation and the way we live – if we push the technology as far as possible.

Ultra-cheap power opens up tremendous possibilities, from converting water into green hydrogen for use as energy storage or for use in industrial processes, to electrifying transportation, energy systems and everything we use fossil fuels for.

Last year, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency set out its vision for ultra-low-cost solar energy. The goal is ambitious but achievable.

By 2030, the agency wants commercial solar cells to reach 30 percent efficiency, up from 22 percent today. She wants the cost of large overall systems (modules, inverters and transmission) to drop by 50 percent to 30 cents per watt.

It requires intensive research. More than 250 Australian researchers are working towards these goals at the Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics, an association of six universities and the CSIRO.

Can Silicon Really Pass On?

Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity without moving parts. When sunlight hits silicon — the material commonly used in solar cells — its energy releases an electron that can move within the material just like electrons move in wires or batteries.

The solar panels on your roof probably started out as desert sand, were melted into silicon dioxide, refined into silicon, and refined again into 99.999 percent pure polysilicon. This versatile material has been at the heart of solar success for decades. Importantly, it’s scalable—from the size of a pinhead to arrays covering square miles.

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