Humanity has understood the potential of solar energy for millennia. History suggests that as far back as the first century A.D., the Roman Empire harnessed solar energy to power their famous bathhouses. Indigenous peoples living in certain portions of North America heated their homes with the sun in the 13th century. So why do solar applications in the 21st century seems so limited?
One of the biggest challenges with solar energy is storage. The sun is capable of generating tremendous volumes of energy during the daylight hours. It obviously produces nothing at night. So to fully harness the power of the sun, solar solutions require storage capacity. And that has been the stumbling block all along.
Everyone Would Go Solar
It was in 1973 when the University of Delaware built the first solar-powered residence. Their experimental home utilized a number of state-of-the-art technologies to turn sunlight into electrical current. Observers were so excited about the results of the project that many began to declare that every home would be solar powered within years.
It was not long after that the photovoltaic market emerged. Companies began producing rooftop solar panels and pitching them to homeowners who wanted to get off the grid. Some got on board, most did not. Not much has changed in the 40+ years since.
Solar power based on photovoltaic technology is clearly limited. Until adequate storage capacity is found, getting people to convert to solar will remain a hard sell. Fortunately, the solar industry may now have a solution in the form of lithium-ion batteries.
The Promise of Lithium-Ion
Pale Blue Earth, a company that makes USB rechargeable batteries, says that lithium-ion technology could be the storage solution that finally gives the solar industry the productivity boost it has been looking for. Lithium-ion batteries offer a number of advantages over lead-acid batteries:
- Long Life – Li-ion batteries can last up to 10 times longer due to the fact that they can be charged so many times. A good lithium-ion battery can endure 1,000 or more charge cycles.
- High Density – Lithium-ion batteries have a higher energy density than their lead-acid counterparts. That means greater energy potential in the same amount of space.
- Consistent Discharge – The most efficient batteries are those that discharge consistently. Lithium-ion certainly fits the bill. There is no loss of performance during normal discharge.
- Fast Recharge – Lead-acid batteries must be recharged in stages. This takes a long time. So long, in fact, that lead-acid batteries are just not efficient enough for photovoltaic systems. On the other hand, a lithium-ion battery can be recharged in 1-3 hours and in a single stage.
The solar power industry also appreciates the fact that modern lithium-ion batteries are smart batteries. They are smart in the sense that on-board chips regulate both charge and discharge for safety reasons. This means that Li-ion batteries are less likely to suffer catastrophic failure.
Making Them Cost-Effective
Everything lithium-ion batteries have the offer is offset only by their cost. Therein lies the rub. The batteries are expensive enough that adding them to a photovoltaic system makes solar power for residential homes even less attractive. So now the goal is to make the batteries more cost-effective.
We already know that lithium-ion batteries are capable of giving the solar power industry what they need in terms of storage capacity. Now the industry just has to bring the price down. Make them cheaper and you make them more attractive as a storage solution for residential solar installations. Success here could mean a big boost for residential solar power.