Central Texas may not have had a big Earth Day march but a local university is quietly making major steps in solar research. Texas A&M University Central Texas is working to make solar more cost effective for cities and businesses though two areas of research and just got a major upgrade to make that happen.
One research area is to make solar panels more efficient. The university installed a $700,000 electron microscope last week in order to study alternate materials for solar panels at the molecular lever. The analysis will help them increase the efficiency limit currently holding solar back.
Conventional solar panels only convert 12 to 18 percent of the sun's energy to usable power for a consumer. Because of economies of scale, large solar farms can be cost effective for a utility powering part of a city. For businesses and individual users however, there is no uniform solution that can compete with typical utility company costs.
Texas A&M University Vice President for Research and Economic Development Dr. Russell Porter said solar energy only has 1 percent of the national market, but if that 18 percent energy conversion rate went up it would open doors for a larger market.
"When you go from an efficiency of 18 to 30 percent that we have actually got in the lab, that already exists, in two to five years when you have that you can start to get business close to utility costs," Porter said.
Porter said he believes it is possible to get almost a 50 percent energy conversion rate, but that is up to a decade away.
The university is also researching how businesses could implement new solar technology to close the gap between current electric company costs and the overall cost of implementing a solar system. The research considers not only new technologies but what tax incentives are most effective to help businesses decide on solar power.
The University of Texas A&M Central Texas is working with Texas A&M College Station, The University of Texas at Austin, and Colorado State University to conduct solar research thanks to a four year $1.2 Million grant from the National Science Foundation. Porter said the continued availability of federal funds is important to the research moving forward in the future.