A Dive into the Solar Industry

A brief history of solar panels, some of their technical attributes, and the future potential of them.

Jonathan Oslin

2021-05-27 3 min read

Solar panels are alternative energy that has recently been getting a lot of popularity due to their low-cost solution that helps lower carbon emissions and saves people money by using something seemingly abundant, the sun. The three most popular types of solar panels are monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film. All three of these are made out of silicon in different forms, and mono-crystalline and polycrystalline panels share similar resources. Mono-crystalline solar panels are made from pure silicon whereas thin-film solar panels can be made with a variety of materials including silicon. The thin-film solar panels are cheaper to implement but they also have the lowest efficiency because they have less silicon. The thin-film solar panels reach ~11% efficiency and on the other hand, mono-crystalline solar panels reach 20% efficiency. This is a 100% difference in efficiency between these solar panel types. Silicon is an expensive material to make solar panels with, so finding alternatives and recycling methods will affect future solar generation In an MIT study they are experimenting with using alkali metals and other metals to try new methods of improving efficiency and longevity in the solar panels. According to the study, the perovskite panels have a comparable efficiency of about 23% with a maximum efficiency of 31%.

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, solar all began with Edmond Becquerel, he was a physicist in France who in 1839 observed and discovered the photovoltaic effect. This is the process where a voltage or electric current is produced when exposed to light or radiant energy.

Charles Fritts was an inventor who was able to achieve a 1-2 percent efficiency on the solar panels he created by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold. He considered it to be a considerable force at the time. A few years later, in 1888, Edward Watson received two patents for this new tech, for transforming radiant energy derived from the sun into electrical energy, or through electrical energy into mechanical energy and thus the innovations began for solar research.

Solar panels have been around since 1884, and the goal has remained the same, to provide energy in the form of electricity to individuals and businesses. Providing energy requires  preparation , like gathering resources to assemble these solar panels. In 1884, the first solar panels were made by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold. Comparing that to now in 2021, most solar panels are made out of silicon, which is the main component in beach sand. The complication to this is that in order to create silicon out of sand it is a high cost and energy intensive process. So there is a large upfront investment in both the resources that are being used and the cost for the materials and production, but the idea is the savings, and lower emissions, outweigh the costs in the long run, both economically and environmentally.

What remains constant are the precious materials in solar panels that need to be extracted after they’ve seen their “useful life”. There is new technology that is being worked on according to Grist.org to extract up to 95% of the materials in the solar panels in Europe, and they’re working on improving that figure. The thing is, a lot of  solar panels aren’t being recycled correctly or are being incorrectly classified as having seen its full useful life. Due to this, a lot of solar panels at recycling facilities can easily be reused and fabricated into new ones. With the projected cumulative PV panel waste expected to increase exponentially from now in 2021 to 2050, there will need to be a complete change in the process of recycling. This will call for all new types of recycling processes to come up with the most energy and cost efficient solution to extract materials and create new solar panels to meet output demands. Taking economics into the situation, it costs on average in the U.S. between $12 and $15 to recycle panels, where in some states it only costs $1 to dispose of a solar panel (by putting it in the landfill).The goal is to achieve high purity in the materials that are being extracted and for it to be low cost. It will be interesting to see how the industry progresses over the next 30 years, as the solar panel recycling market valuation is expected to reach $600 million by 2027 according to estimates.