Smart and Steady Wins the Solar Race

Smart and Steady Wins the Solar Race

February 8, 2018

Scientists at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have been at the top of the solar power game for decades, so it’s not entirely surprising that UNSW will be the first university in the world to convert to all solar power. Not surprising, maybe, but the work done by the researchers in Australia is genuinely remarkable as it has and will continue to change the world of renewable energy.

How’d they do it? Bit by bit.

The School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE) at UNSW was established in 1974 in response to the worldwide gas and oil crisis that decade. A year later, UNSW scientists built their first solar cell. Ten years later, they built the world’s first 20% efficient solar cell. Over the next decade, researchers at the School changed the ways in which the world collects and uses solar energy via a series of technological breakthroughs. Around the turn of the 21st century, the School began achieving near-yearly world-wide firsts in solar energy technology.

The history of solar cells (also known as photovoltaic cells) is worth considering. The capacity for generating electricity via sunlight was first observed in the mid-19th century. The first solar cell, created using selenium and gold, was not quite 1% efficient in transforming sunlight into electricity.

Two issues have plagued solar power generation from the beginning: efficiency and cost. Transforming sunlight into electricity has been a tantalizing possibility, but the process by which that transformation takes place has proven to be a challenging puzzle.

Scientists have attempted to increase the efficiency with which sunlight is transformed into electricity since discovering it was possible. In 2016, researchers at SPREE developed a “triple-junction” solar cell, which, by extracting waves of sunlight at different wavelengths using a prism, increased efficiency to a whopping 40%.

This innovation made a number of things possible, not least of which was the University’s recent decision to partner with a nearby solar farm to begin transitioning the University to 100% solar power.  As we know, smart technology is often cost-effective technology. The University will provide its cutting edge technology to the solar farm, which will then provide the University with all of its electricity beginning in 2019.

It’s this kind of innovative thinking that inspires and drives us here at Drift.