Solar cells are not a waste of energy
Solar cells are not a waste of energy

Solar cells are not a waste of energy

Do solar panels provide more energy than is put into them? ‘A very legitimate and fortunately often recurring question,’ says solar cell researcher John Schermer from Radboud University. ‘If solar cells were not so promising, then there would not be as much global research into them.’

The short and sweet answer from Schermer: Yes, there is irrefutable proof that solar panels provide more energy than we use to make and install them. Even in countries less sunny than the Netherlands, a panel provides eight to ten times as much energy compared to the energy it costs to produce them.

“Every so often, it is reported that solar panels do not yield anything at all, and it causes a big uproar. In 2016, a study was published that concluded that the production of solar panels costs more energy than the panels can produce in 25+ years, and this led to heated discussion in the media. I am very happy that, at that time, a group of eminent academics came together who used detailed calculations to demonstrate that these claims were not correct at all.”

Something for everyone

What most people do not know is that there are many types of solar cells, made from different materials. The most common solar cells are made from crystalline silicon. However, there are materials that are more flexible, have certain colours, or perform better, but that are also a lot more expensive. It means that there are solar cells that are useful for many different applications.

John Schermer’s research group (Applied Materials Science) has set several world records for the development of solar cells with the highest efficiency in their category. “Those records are no longer in our name, but I don’t mind that: it means that there is progress.”

The Radboud scientists are conducting research into the solar cells of a III-V semiconductor material. “It consists of a combination of elements from the III and V columns of the periodic table. The beauty of it is that we can adjust the physical properties of this material so that they perfectly match the light spectrum of the sun.” Compared to a silicone solar cell, this type of cell is relatively expensive, but it is one hundred times thinner, can withstand radiation well, and has a much higher efficiency. This is the reason that Schermer and colleagues are also working on applications for space travel.

Global standard

Worldwide, a lot of research is being conducted into solar cells with increasingly greater efficiency or special characteristics. But Schermer says that, even if you think you’ve created an innovative new solar cell, you’re not there yet. New solar cells are rigorously assessed by five globally accredited measurement laboratories. Only if the solar cell passes the assessment by one of these labs, then it will be taken seriously in the field.

Schermer’s research group has also developed measuring equipment that can do those efficiency tests. “I would venture to say that the results of our measurements are as reliable as those of the five accredited laboratories. This is why many research groups and solar cell manufacturers around the world use Radboud-certified reference cells produced by ReRa Solutions, a spin-out company from our group. Of course, large-scale production of solar cells is not the objective of a research group at Radboud University, but we are working with many other parties to come up with new and exciting innovations for solar panels.”

This article was written in response to a question from a Radboud Recharge reader. More answers to reader questions can be found by using in our summer special.

Photo: Dick van Aalst

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Sustainability, Innovation