Wyatt Sanders is cofounder of Jaxhax the Jacksonville Makerspace. He works as an electrical engineering intern, and is an engineering student at UNF. He is also the young inventor of the Solar Shutters and several other patent pending solar devices, he is CEO of Insite Renewable Energy, LLC. He’ll be presenting his solar panels this April the 17th-21st at One Spark in the SunTrust building. Join us for an explanation of his solar power devices after the jump!
The Future of Home Solar
There's not a building today without windows. Every window serves as a portrait of the world outdoors, and can be the closest thing to a breath of fresh air without actually taking a step outside. Windows provide a much needed barrier between the natural environment and our own, while allowing our homes to soak up the sun’s natural light. But windows carry with them some hidden costs. The two largest uses of energy in buildings are air conditioning and indoor lighting. These two uses combined can quickly add up. In the United States, buildings alone account for 42% of the Nation’s total energy use. Nearly half of the energy used in buildings goes to lighting, heating, and cooling. That's far too much energy just to be comfortable indoors.
Like windows, sunlight is everywhere. Even on a cloudy day a massive supply of energy pours in through the atmosphere. Every growing plant and every blowing wind comes from the sun’s energy. Our very concept of day and time is dependent on the sun's existence. Yet why don’t we use the sun’s power more often? The abundance of solar energy can be used indoors to naturally light rooms, but it brings with it a considerable amount of heat. More heat means more work for air conditioners, and a larger electric bill at the end of the month. Moreover, we still get most of our energy from fossil fuels. The world's current energy use consumes about 4 cubic miles of liquefied dinosaur remains each year. Consider also that less than half the world has working electric service, but more are plugging in each day. If the rest of the world were to live like we do in The U.S. we would need an estimated 4.1 earths to provide for everyone. This is a trend that's unsustainable. Ultimately we can continue our use of fossil fuels and go the way of the Dinosaur, or we can prosper on a new path to energy independence. We can no longer thrive on a world founded on fossil fuels. Our oil reserves are quickly drying up while we slowly sink into the uncharted waters of climate change. Now a threat to all nations, climate change is a challenge larger than any humanity has faced before. Evidenced by the dense smog over China, droughts, freak storms, and sinking cities in the U.S. It’s clear that we can’t ignore the elephant in the room any longer.
The solutions we do have may seem few and far between, as it’s easier to pollute than it is to be green. When it comes to cleaner sources of energy there’s wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro, and solar. But every source of renewable energy carries with it some sort of economic and environmental drawback, and not many can be found in your own backyard. Fortunately solar energy has the least impact of all the renewable energy sources. Its primary impact on the environment comes almost entirely from the manufacture of solar cells alone. The current process to manufacture solar cells draws on fossil fuels to power manufacturing plants. But this may be eliminated over time as more renewables come online. The second environmental impact of solar comes from the considerable amount of land needed to produce the energy people use. The use of solar energy is still relatively new, as it’s only been in practical use for about 30 years. Though each year solar cells are made to produce more energy in less space, at a lower cost similar to Moore’s law. Electric companies have started installing solar panels to offset their coal-fired power plants. Unfortunately these attempts at renewable energy undermine many of the benefits in reducing greenhouse gases as every acre of land dedicated to solar is an additional acre absent of forestry. A typical 15 Megawatt solar plant spans 100 acres or nearly 90 football fields of nothing but solar panels. The 15 Mw of usable energy produced is only about 6% the capacity of a normal coal fired power plant, or about enough for 400 homes. To replace a 300 Megawatt coal plant it would take another 19 solar plants of equal size, or 1,900 acres of solar panels. It’s no surprise solar energy only provides for roughly 1% of The U.S.’s energy consumption.
Solar Panels still have many advantages as they have no moving parts, they need little maintenance, and they can last a long time. You can also install a solar panel nearly anywhere with a view of the sun. Roofs can be a great place to put solar panels as they take advantage of land we already use. Installing solar panels at home can also give greater benefits to home owners. As it can also give users energy independence to lower their bills, help the environment, and lock in current prices of energy from inflation. Consider that more demand for energy may come from electric vehicles hooking into the grid, while more environmental regulation and carbon taxes may also prompt for more supply from expensive utility scale renewable energy sources. Utilities are going to reflect their costs in their price per unit of energy (Kwh). But there are still some big hurdles before switching to solar. First you have to have a roof or cleared land to put solar panels on. Installing them then requires hiring a contractor, pulling permits, signing an agreement with your power company, and investing close to $15,000 or more for the solar panels, parts, and labor. Solar at this point is limited to a committed few. Though it doesn’t have to be like this, in Germany close to 40% of the energy used comes from solar rooftops alone. Solar energy can also create new jobs, as Germany now has more solar installers than the U.S. has steelworkers.
But what about the many office buildings and apartments that fill our cities, is there no path to solar in sight for them? Researchers from the University of Central Florida have worked diligently on photovoltaic window tints that may someday become practical. Their hopes are that they may be applied to office windows, though not much of the solar energy that falls on them can be efficiently converted to usable electricity. The use of tinted windows can also diminish the benefits of natural lighting, and can heat rooms if used with un-insulated windows. More energy may ultimately be lost to air-conditioning and indoor lighting than what's generated with a solar window.
Imagine instead if you could retrofit a regular roof solar panel to mount on your existing windows. Floridians are no stranger to storm shutters; as they adorn many windows though unlike other window treatments they can provide more function than aesthetics alone. Louvered shutters can control windows to supply the optimal amount of light indoors reducing your need for indoor fluorescent lights. You can also keep out much of the heat you’d normally get from dark window tints. Louvered shutters can dissipate heat from your windows by refracting natural light indoors, so you get light without much of the heat saving you money on lighting and air-conditioning. With this solution we can get window insulation and natural lighting without many of the drawbacks, while also generating some clean energy on the side. Solar cells embedded in your window shutter turn your window into a personal power plant. With them installed you can generate energy like a regular solar panel without much of the hassle. These systems can be made inexpensively, while looking nice enough to put in your home. The integrated electronics allow a Solar Shutter to be plugged into a standard power outlet like a normal appliance. Being easy enough to install yourself may eliminate the need for expensive contracting, and permitting. These new systems will eventually be sold in home improvement stores as complete out of the box home-solar kits that you could take home and install yourself. Though you may be ready to cut the cord and replace your electric company, these solar panels aren’t intended to take your home entirely off the grid. The systems are designed to work like new energy efficient appliances to reduce energy for things you already use, while helping power other devices with electricity generated from your windows. This integration of benefits allows Solar Shutters to pay for themselves a little sooner than regular roof mounted solar panels. If you decide you don’t want an electric bill any longer Solar Shutters can also work with other renewable energy sources like roof solar panels, and wind turbines to get your home entirely off the grid.
With the recent trend toward smart homes and building automation the location of electronics on windows allows us to do some things never done before. Imagine window shutters that close themselves at night for privacy, or before a storm for protection. Use your Solar Shutters to control or automate natural lighting for an entire office building. Shutters for storefronts could be fitted with solar powered LED lights for night shop lighting. Or even programmed to close their blinds and protect the shop from vandalism when it's time to close. Whatever needs you may have, there’s a Solar Shutter to fit your lifestyle.
With the creeping reality of climate change and the greater use of glass in modern architecture, new solutions and technologies are needed. America has relied heavily on innovation in the past, and now is no different. Right now is an exciting time to watch the recent advancements in solar energy and home automation and for good reason too. As what changes the world, starts at home. Climate change started with us, and it will have to end with us if we want to continue. We have little idea what the future will bring, but we hope that in the future you’ll participate with us in going green, saving some green, and opening the door to smarter homes.
Wyatt Sanders is cofounder of Jaxhax the Jacksonville Makerspace. He works as an electrical engineering intern, and is an engineering student at UNF. He is also the young inventor of the aforementioned Solar Shutters and several other patent pending solar devices, he is CEO of Insite Renewable Energy, LLC. He’ll be presenting his solar panels this April the 17th-21st at One Spark in the SunTrust building.