Solar Panels, Sunflowers, and Subsidies

Photograph courtesy of John Nyberg/

Faces open to the sun, young sunflowers follow the golden orb across the sky catching as much light as possible. Now researchers have found out how to make solar panels do the same without using GPS devices or equipment to manually rotate them, making them more efficient and potentially driving down their cost.


There are ways to make solar panels efficient and competitive with conventional sources of power, says University of Wisconsin engineer Hongrui Jiang, lead author of a paper noted in Nature and published in Advanced Functional Materials: use concentrators, like mirrors, or use solar trackers to maximize the amount of sunlight a panel receives.


“Find some way so that the solar panels will responds to light and turn themselves toward the sun without having to consume extra electricity—that’s our basic approach,” says Jiang, who has been working on this puzzle on and off for the last five years.


To accomplish his goal, he used liquid crystalline elastomer (LCE), which, when the temperature reaches a certain degree, contracts. And the process is reversible, allowing the solar panels to expand again as the sun moves from east to west. He also put carbon nanotubes, which absorb light at various wavelengths and generate heat, in the elastomer. Efficiency increases by 10 percent, they found.


The researchers are looking for industrial partners to commercialize the technology, says Jiang. And they might just be interested if the advance helps reduce the price of solar panels.


“We all know renewable energy is critical right now. Solar energy has been talked about for a long time for the replacement of fossil fuels, but it still takes tens of years to pay off. The government has had subsidies for a while, but I don’t know how long they’re going to last,” he says.


The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a report showing how much the federal government spent in tax dollars on renewable energy development and increased efficiency ($16 billion) and fossil fuel subsidies ($2.5 billion) in 2011. (For more, read this Institute for Energy Research description.) This is, however, a change from where the money has gone historically. Up until 2008 most of the subsidies went to the fossil fuel energy, reports (PDF) the non-profit Environmental Law Institute, a group that published estimated government subsidies to energy sources between 2002 and 2008.


“Subsidies to fossil fuels—a mature, developed industry that has enjoyed government support for many years—totaled approximately $72 billion over the study period, representing a direct cost to taxpayers,” ELI said. “Subsidies for renewable fuels, a relatively young and developing industry, totaled $29 billion over the same period,” the group stated.


Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said--as reported by a live tweet of the event--at the Washington Post’s Smart Energy conference earlier this year that he predicts the cost of solar power will reach grid parity, the point at which the cost of solar energy will equal that of of utility power from conventional sources like coal or natural gas, between now and 2026. Examples like Solyndra, the solar panel company that received $535 million from the Department of Energy before going bankrupt, politicize the issue. When it comes to reaching that goal, investing in new technologies that eventually fail is inevitable, argue advocates and businessmen.


“In alternative energy, no one expects every gamble to pay off due to the staggering capital costs and long lead times associated with manufacturing new technologies. The federal government's inconsistent commitment to promoting alternative energy has only complicated the picture,” reported Reuters in August.


Still, it’s heartening to see that technologies continue to improve, like Jiang’s advancement shows, despite the political issues surrounding funding. 

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”