3D Solar Towers Could Generate 20x More Energy Than Flat Panels

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3d solar towers
CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Allegra Boverman

Allegra Boverman/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

MIT researchers have found that energy output from solar photovoltaic cells can be greatly increased by stacking the cells in 3D configurations like towers or cubes. The 3D designs can generate anywhere from double up to 20 times the amount of energy as flat solar panels with the same base area.

These 3D designs increase electricity output because their vertical surfaces allow them to capture sunlight even when the sun is closest to the horizon during mornings, evenings and winter and when sunlight is partially obstructed by shadows or cloud cover. The researchers ran computer algorithms to come up with the best 3D designs and theoretically tested them in a range of latitudes, seasons and weather using analytical software. The researchers then built three different models -- two different cubes and a tower setup -- and tested them on the roof of the laboratory for a few weeks to get the results.

The advantages to these 3D designs are both the increased power output and a more uniform and predictable power output, which means that solar power can be better integrated into power grids. While these designs will be more expensive to manufacture, the increase in performance will offset the cost of building them.

The researchers are now focusing on the tower design since it could easily be shipped flat and then popped up during installation. Their next step is to test multiple towers together to see how shadows from other towers as the sun moves across the sky during the day affect the modules' performance. Once the ideal arrangement of these towers is determined, the researchers see a future where these new designs are used on both rooftops and in large solar farms.