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Affordable solar power is focus of new research

Dr. Brandon Cohen, UT associate lecturer of management who specializes in business law and entrepreneurship, has been awarded a $1 million grant to research and develop a new low-cost solar panel that can be used on residential homes.

Dr. Brandon Cohen showed the model roof used to test the installation of residential photovoltaic systems in an effort to make solar power more affordable.

Dr. Brandon Cohen showed the model roof used to test the installation of residential photovoltaic systems in an effort to make solar power more affordable.

During the next five years, Cohen and his team will develop a “plug-and-play” photovoltaic (PV) system that will be more efficient and cost-effective in generating electrical power by converting solar radiation into direct current electricity.

This proposed system operates like any other solar panel; however, it is smaller in size, has a less-invasive installation process, and uses less-expensive materials.

“Aluminum, for example, is heavy and it’s expensive, but it survives bad weather and is durable,” Cohen said. “We might be able to use composite materials that are lighter, stronger and cheaper.”

Cohen and his team of students plan to take what exists and develop a system that anyone can assemble and install on their homes, simplifying the current process that includes getting a permit and hiring professional installers.

“Our goal is to bring a new product to the market that will become a standard for the industry,” Cohen said. “I worked with solar before and I saw an opportunity here to make a better product, so I jumped on it.”

UT has partnered with North Carolina State University, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Quanta Technologies, Isofoton North America and ABB in an effort to develop this technology.

This collaboration was given a five-year, $9.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, of which UT was awarded $1 million to reduce the cost of installing residential PV systems to $1.50 per watt.

In 2012, the median price range to have a residential PV system installed ranged from $5.30 per watt for small systems, to $4.60 per watt for systems larger than 100 kilowatts.

“We want to reduce the cost of the overall system so we get it to a price where everyone in America would want one, get it so affordable that you’d be dumb not to do it,” Cohen said.

Undergraduate students working with Cohen on the project have constructed a model roof and installed solar panels to see how long the process would to take. They also have helped with the design of the panels.

“Academia is great; it helps you train your mind, but at the end of the day, you won’t understand what you learn until you get out there. This is giving [students] a real opportunity to understand the innovation process and how to actually be involved in it,” Cohen said.

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