German researchers just hit a new world record for solar efficiency.
After three years of study, researchers at the German Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems have created a solar cell that’s 44.7 percent efficient, meaning it converts 44.7 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity. The new record isn’t much higher than the previous record of 44 percent, set in December 2012, but as TreeHugger notes, it brings the solar industry closer to achieving 50 percent efficiency.
The researchers used a new solar cell structure with four solar subcells to achieve the high rate of efficiency. These cells are used in concentrator photovoltaics (CPV) a technology which, according to Phys.org, “achieves more than twice the efficiency of conventional PV power plants in sun-rich locations.” Typical PV solar panels — ones that are available commercially — have an efficiency rate of 15 to 16 percent — some reach higher, like the California-based Silevo cells that hit 21 percent. The more efficient the panel, the less surface area is needed to provide the same amount of energy.
These levels of output seem small compared to other renewable energy sources: wind energy (on land) produces about 30 percent of its theoretical maximum output over the course of the year, while hydropwer is capable of achieving 90 percent efficiency. But they’re more than enough to power a house, and major solar plants, like the four gigawatt plant India is planning on building, can provide the same amount of power as multiple fossil fuel-fired power plants.
Technology like the new cell structure isn’t used in commercial solar panels yet, and it will probably be several years before it is. But the industry’s push for higher and higher efficiency could eventually lead to lower costs for consumers, a trend that’s already starting: the price of installing residential solar panels hit a record low in 2012, and costs are expected to keep falling. Companies and governments are catching on: at least six of the 10 largest U.S. home builders include solar panels in new home construction, and two California towns are mandating solar installations on new buildings. As technology improves and even residential solar panels become more efficient, they’ll continue to grow in popularity and accessibility.