A new solar collector is starting a trend when it comes to concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. For the first time ever, “ganged heliostats” could be a viable option for new CSP systems.

Skysun, a startup out of Bay Village, Ohio, developed the new design that could help cut the cost of a CSP system by more than 30%.

Ganged Heliostat Technology

CSP technologies use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat. The mirrors, also known as heliostats, typically require their own base, foundation, and motor.

Skysun’s solar collector groups together heliostats through shared motors and support structures, which has the potential to cut the total installed cost of CSP systems in half. While other ganged heliostat concepts have previously been proposed, none of them have shown to be cost competitive or viable—until now.

Ganged heliostat prototype installed at Sandia National Laboratories' National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

SkySun partnered with Sandia National Laboratories through a $275,000 Small Business Vouchers project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative. Sandia reported that Skysun’s ganged heliostats can achieve an average price point around $80/m2. That’s 33% lower than the lowest average cost for today’s conventional heliostats ($120/m2) and close to the SunShot Initiative’s goal of lowering the cost of solar collectors to $75/m2.

Path to Market Adoption

Skysun’s biggest barrier was showing that the technology is not just comparable to current heliostats in terms of performance, but more affordable. They used a grant from Innovation Fund America to build their first lab-scale prototype, then worked with Sandia to model and optimize the system. Alongside Sandia, Skysun designed custom codes for mirror positioning to reduce shading from other mirrors within the system, making its peak efficiency comparable to those deployed today. So far, modeling on Skysun’s solar collectors show that its mirrors achieve CSP industry accuracy standards with winds up to 15-20 miles per hour.

Skysun founder Jim Clair believes he will be able to leverage the outcomes from Skysun’s collaboration with Sandia in his search for a strategic partnership to prepare this technology for market adoption. Describing Sandia as “the mecca for CSP,” Clair said Sandia’s support in demonstrating the ganged heliostat’s stability, performance, and cost will be instrumental in showing the technology’s viability to potential partners.

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative and Tech-to-Market program within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

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Learn more about Tech-to-Market’s Small Business Vouchers program, which opens the national labs to qualified small businesses by making the contracting process simple, lab practices transparent, and access to the labs' unique facilities practical. 

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If you own a solar energy system, it’s very likely that the SunShot Initiative has impacted at least one of the steps that helped you get there. Since SunShot launched in 2011, the program has funded hundreds of projects at national labs, universities, and private companies that have added clarity, speed, and cost savings to each step of the “going solar” process.

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The Big Decision

Simplifying the “Going-Solar” Process

Deciding to go solar is the first step in the process and often the most challenging one. A lot of variables come into play: Should I make the leap to solar energy? Is my home suitable for solar? Does it make financial sense to go solar? Who should I go with for installation? SunShot awardees are addressing all of these questions.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) uses SunShot funding to research market barriers that prevent solar adoption, fostering competition within the industry to develop a more streamlined process. Awardees such as Sun Number and EnergySage have developed tools that help consumers find personalized information needed to assess the suitability of their homes for solar and to find the best installers. These companies are also driving down solar costs by providing consumers with new tools to help them make informed decisions on how to get started.

Calculating Finances

Just how much can one save by switching to solar? It depends on a complex mix of your home, local laws, and daily energy usage. Algorithms and remote sensing, however, have made it easier to determine your cost savings.

SunShot-funded small businesses use the latest technologies to make this process easier and faster. Aurora Solar developed a remote design tool that creates custom 3D solar system designs, making it easier to determine accurate financing options and potential savings. Another awardee, Genability, created a third-party savings calculator known as Switch, which instantly generates savings estimates that have been found to be more than 99.5% accurate. And, when it comes to obtaining financing to pay for going solar, SunShot awardees are developing solutions to enable loans, master limited partnerships, and new streams of capital for solar finance.

Rooftop Reality

Once a solar installer is selected and financing is obtained, the installation process begins—much more efficient and affordable thanks to early-stage funding from SunShot. Zep Solar’s rooftop mounting equipment shaves $0.28 per watt off of the total installed price thanks to reduced hardware and labor costs. This savings led to their acquisition by SolarCity, one of the country’s largest solar companies. SolarBridge developed a microinverter that can be integrated into solar panels, eliminating the need to set up modules to a single string inverter. Finally, NREL research is used to establish evaluation systems for solar module durability, as well as inspection guidelines, so that industry can offer uniform quality to every customer.

Solar Financing Options

Talking to the Grid

After installation, solar arrays must be connected to the grid. This step is important because utilities need to plan for increases in solar energy on the grid. Since there are many different utility jurisdictions across the country, the process is rarely standardized, and red tape can create lengthy interconnection times.

Enter more SunShot awardees to help simplify the process.

GridUnity, formerly Qado Energy, developed a cloud-connected tool that uses algorithms to determine what impact a solar installation will have on the grid. It identifies which circuit a solar project will join, calculates its hosting capacity, and provides an instant response on whether the circuit can handle more solar. This can speed up the impact study process in some utility territories from 55 days to just 60 minutes. In addition, to minimize potential negative grid impacts of PV systems, several smart inverters are under development that will allow grid operators to better control solar energy’s local impacts on the electric grid.

Reaping the Benefits

Going solar can help save homeowners money on monthly utility bills, but only if the system is operating correctly. Some awardees have tools that allow you to monitor your energy usage to ensure things are running smoothly. Should the time come to sell your home, a study at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory determined buyers are willing to pay a premium of $15,000 for a home with an average-sized, resident-owned solar array. The team is also making home sales easier for real estate agents. They created five standard data fields for solar properties that can be used by the more than 700 multiple listing services around the country to ensure real estate transactions remain secure and efficient.

A Full Solar Circle

Research from Yale University has shown that, if your neighbor notices your new solar panels and you tell them about the cost savings you’re experiencing, the cycle often starts anew as someone else considers going solar. Once a costly process, making the switch to solar is now easier and more affordable thanks to the research and development funded by the SunShot Initiative.

From start to finish, the “going solar” process is powered by SunShot.

It’s been nearly a century since anyone in the U.S. has experienced anything like it: On August 21, the moon will pass between the earth and the sun, effectively blocking some or most of the sunlight that reaches the earth across a large swath of the United States. Starting above Salem, Oregon and ending above Charleston, South Carolina, this is the first eclipse in 99 years that spans the entire continent. While only lasting about two minutes in each location, the output of photovoltaic (PV) power plants across the U.S. will dramatically decrease.

Studying the Impact

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducted a study of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) territory, which covers the vast majority of the Mountain and Pacific Time zones including 14 Western states. In these areas, the eclipse will occur between 8:00 a.m. and noon. Researchers have already examined potential impacts of the eclipse on generation from power plants and rooftops. It is estimated that both sources provide the WECC with PV capacity of approximately 25 gigawatts (GW), utility scale accounting for two thirds of that. Total PV power installed across the U.S. is estimated to be over 44 GW today.

Examining the WECC as a whole, and assuming the worst case scenario—a bright and sunny day—the rolling effects of the eclipse are expected to have the biggest impact at approximately 10:30 a.m., when PV output is projected to drop 5 GW below typical generation levels. This represents the amount of energy needed to power approximately 1 million homes and, if not already anticipated, could create difficulties for portions of the grid network that use solar to meet a significant fraction of electricity demand during the day. The burden of compensating for the lost energy from solar generators will fall mostly on natural gas powered turbines, which are able to ramp up ahead of the eclipse. Hydro generation—power created from flowing water—will also help to fill the void of solar output, though conservation constraints in the West will prevent it from compensating for all of the lost generation. NREL’s modeling is expected to enable utilities to pass through this eclipse without completely disconnecting any PV, to maximize the production of solar electricity.

Preventing Future Issues

Research funded by the SunShot Initiative’s systems integration subprogram is helping to mitigate impacts of the August 21 eclipse and will continue to help utilities plan for weather events that are harder to predict. Solar forecasting technologies allow grid and solar power plant operators to predict when, where, and how much electricity will be produced—thus developing the best strategy for balancing supply and demand. SunShot funding allows NREL to conduct forecasting simulations on two large PV arrays located at a field test site near Denver. As the eclipse happens, those arrays will be monitored to verify the simulations. Denver will experience a 92% eclipse, so the impact is significant and will benefit solar producers during future eclipses.

Systems Integration

The systems integration subprogram enables the widespread deployment of secure, reliable, and cost effective solar energy on the nation’s electricity grid. Learn more

SunShot is working to develop certain energy storage solutions that are scalable, secure, reliable, and cost-effective. As more solar energy continues to be added to the grid, storage would play an important role in mitigating the intermittency of solar, which is currently not capable of meeting energy demand around the clock. These projects would enable solar generated electricity to be dispatched when and where it’s needed. Austin Energy is already beginning to integrate energy storage technology into its management tools and will soon have the capability to divert grid-connected solar to storage facilities. This work will serve as a benchmark reference for any utility to optimize its solar resources at all times.

As parts of the country prepare to experience darkness in the middle of the day, the SunShot Initiative is doing its part to help develop a more reliable and resilient electric grid, regardless of the time of day.

Learn more about SunShot’s resources on the eclipse and visit NASA’s eclipse website.

Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

August 9, 2017

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Home » Solar Power Does What? 4 Unusual Uses of Photovoltaic Technology

It’s becoming more common to find solar panels on rooftops, but that’s just one of thousands of places where they are generating power. As costs drop and energy production rises, we expect to see many more places where solar technologies are put to work—providing unleashed, inexpensive electricity.

Here are four unusual places where solar technologies are being used today:

Windows that incorporate photovoltaic cells are being developed by SunShot awardee Next Energy Technologies to increase the energy efficiency of commercial buildings. 

Paul Wellman/Next Energy Technologies

Solar Windows

New solar electric window technologies allow visible light to shine through glass panels while simultaneously collecting the invisible rays contained in sunlight and transforming them into electricity. These applications are still exploratory, but one company is working with SunShot to make the technology practical across large sheets of glass, so the windows of commercial buildings can serve dual purposes.

This ARCO Solar Sunroof was marketed to vehicle manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers in the 1980s as a way to optimize air conditioner capacity. 

ARCO Solar

Solar-Powered Car Surfaces

While there are solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles in numerous U.S. cities, solar technology is making its way directly into the body of some cars. The 2010 Toyota Prius featured a solar panel on its roof, but the generated electricity only helped to power the car’s climate control system. An updated version of the same car, now being manufactured in Japan, connects the solar panel directly to the car’s battery, increasing the efficiency and reliability of the electrical system. This is a far leap from the first semi-transparent solar sunroof technology developed in the 1980s that augmented the car’s ventilation.

Solar vaccine refrigeration has come a long way—much more efficient configurations are available that are easier to transport and also make ice. 

NESTE Advanced Power Systems

Vaccine Refrigerators

In developing countries, 24-hour electricity isn’t guaranteed, and in many cases, there is no electrical grid. In places with a grid, the infrastructure is often so poor that chronic power outages occur daily. Private companies have been manufacturing solar-powered vaccine refrigerators so healthcare workers in remote areas can administer critical medication to those who need it. This technology solution has been saving lives for more than four decades.

Sunlight can make streetlights function in the evening, and in some cities, internet-linked cameras and sensors already allow them to do even more. 

Robert Ashworth

Smart Solar Cities

Solar-powered streetlights are currently used all across urban areas. The sun charges a battery during the day so streetlights, now primarily utilizing light-emitting diodes (LEDs), can shine at night. Some cities, like San Diego, California, are using streetlights to optimize infrastructure. The Smart City San Diego Initiative is incorporating smart sensors into streetlights that have the ability to direct drivers to open parking spaces and help first responders during emergencies. Combining internet-linked sensors with solar powered streetlights saves both time and money.

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative’s photovoltaic research and development.

Photo of Charlie Gay, Solar Energy Technologies Office Director
Charlie Gay

Dr. Charlie Gay is the Solar Energy Technologies Office Director for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

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