The amount of solar electricity production from a given area can be increased by changing the arrangement of the solar cells.
In the past, very little attention was given to optimizing the arrangement of solar cells, which are typically placed flat on a rooftop or other surface. A team from MIT has come up with an arrangement that is drastically different than the flat panels we are used to. They are building structures that extend the solar cells upward in 3D configurations.
Not surprisingly, these structures increase the amount of solar electricity generate per unit area – since there are more solar cells per unit area. What is surprising though, is how much increased energy production there is. Test results from the structures show increased power output that ranges from 2X to 20X when compared with flat panels with the same base area. The increase in power production greatly exceeds the amount you would expect from just adding solar cells.
Why do these structures improve the energy production? The primary reason is that the vertical surfaces of the 3D structures collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings, and winter months – when the angle of the sunlight does not work well with roof-mounted flat panels.
Based on testing, the largest increases in power production were seen in locations far from the equator, in winter months, and on cloudy days – precisely the applications that need the increased power output.
As one would expect, the cost of a given amount of energy generated by the 3D modules is much higher than traditional flat panels. However, the expense is partially offset by the more uniform power generation over the course of a day, over the seasons of the year, and in shaded areas.