Solar Energy Done Different

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Suppose I told you that someone came up with an idea to get 300 or even 400 times more energy out of a solar cell? And lets go even further, and say a solar cell "farm" could look 'pretty', like a bunch of birthday balloons?

Sound far-fetched? Not to the folks at coolearthsolar.com! The company states: "Our inflated solar concentrators, on the other hand, are shaped like balloons and are primarily made of inexpensive and free materials. This design approach radically reduces material requirements as well as our plant deployment costs and time."

The idea is to take about 1 Kilo (about 2 pounds) of plastic "the same kind of plastic film used to bag patato chips, pretzels, and so on-with a transparent upper hemisphere and a reflective lower hemisphere. ... When inflated with air, the concentrator naturally forms a shape that focuses or concentrates sunlight onto a PV cell placed at the focal point."

The amount of aluminum needed to create the reflective lower hemisphere is minimal. Cool Earth Solar says, " The average aluminum soda can has enough material to create reflective surfaces for about 725 of our concentrators."

If you have ever fought with a snack bag to get the goodies you want to bite into, you know how tough the plastic can be. The material they want to use is called PET (polyethylene terephthalate) polyester film.

The company states: "The inflated structure is naturally strong-strong enough to support a person's weight-and aerodynamically stable, able to withstand winds of 125 miles per hour. Finally, the transparent upper surface protects the PV cell and mirrored surface from the environment, including rain and snow, as well as insects and dirt."

Of course 2.5 meter (about 8 Feet) balloons would be a real mess if they we're not anchored to the ground. On this matter they say:

"The concentrators are suspended with our patented support system, which is based on the architectural principles of tensegrity. (Tensegrity structures stabilize their shapes by continuous tension or "tensional integrity" rather than by continuous compression.) The resulting system of wood posts and steel cables uses a minimum amount of material, has a small footprint, and causes the least disruption to the natural environment of any solar power plant."

Of course in the end, the slang saying I have heard in the USA is, "show me the money." The current method of solar costs about $7.00 USD per watt. This is a pretty big number. Cool Earth Solar says:

"At a dollar a watt, we're competing very favorably with natural gas, but we're not cheaper than coal-yet. Given that coal plants are the ones producing most of the emissions, coal is the big target, the price point we need to get to as soon as we can."

Other things they got going for them is they are rather terrain insensitive. Rolling hills, or comparatively small areas can be used since the "balloon" is adjusted by regular air to 'focus' the suns energy to the collector.

All this looks like a pretty 'cool' idea. Maybe the best part is we may have electrical generation that looks like a giant party.

Gudrun Funk is a SME for TRCB.com

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