MIT researchers have developed new 3D solar panel designs that could dramatically increase the amount of power generated compared to flat fixed solar panels using the same base area. The MIT team has been both computer modeling and building actual solar arrays in both cube shaped and tower configurations to test the concept. Another bonus is that the biggest power boosts from the MIT arrays were seen in locations far from the equator, in winter months and cloudier days. The software they’ve developed can help determine the best configuration, based on the latitude, season, and weather conditions, in order to design the best array for the location.
Of course an arrangement like this will cost more than a bunch of flat solar panels, but the higher cost is balanced out by the much higher energy output produced for any given footprint. The 3D solar array also produces a much more uniform power output during the course of the day – the panels collect lots more sunlight during the morning and late afternoons, when the sun is closer to the horizon. According to the team’s senior author, Jeffrey Grossman, an Associate Professor of Power Engineering at MIT, these new 3D arrangements make much more sense economically, given that the current cost of the solar panels themselves is much less than the support structures, wiring and installation costs that are needed to build any solar array. As solar cell costs continue to decrease, the benefits of 3D arrays will increase even more. “Even 10 years ago, this idea wouldn’t have been economically justified because the modules cost so much,” Grossman said.