Fourteen floors above the busy student walkway ‘Stripa’ on the NTNU campus at Trondheim, Norway, research scientists and technicians are working unremittingly to complete the installation of an outdoor solar panel laboratory.
They aim to build a new facility on the roof of one of the campus high-rise blocks that will enable researchers, students and, not least, industrial stakeholders to obtain new insights into the exploitation of what is currently reckoned to be most cost-efficient source of renewable energy – solar power.
Cheaper than wood panelling
“Solar panels are now so inexpensive”, says Project Manager and solar panel researcher Eivind Øvrelid at SINTEF. “According to figures from PVinsights, they’re in fact cheaper per square metre than wood panelling. This must be one of the world’s best renewable energy fun facts”, he says.
The laboratory has been granted formal status as part of the Norwegian national infrastructure for solar panel research, and SINTEF will be leading the work required to gather data and find new ways of making solar panels even more efficient. The new laboratory facilities have been given the name Alfa Centauri (the Norwegian spelling of the triple star system Alpha Centauri in the constellation Centaurus).
“The triple star system Alpha Centauri is the closest neighbour to the sun in Milky Way”, says Martin Bellmann, who is the SINTEF researcher responsible for installation. “The name has been chosen because the solar panel facility on the roof of the high-rise block is the closest location to the sun in Trondheim”, he says.
When completed, the laboratory will be made available to all research communities studying solar panel performance in Norway.
“Our aim is to develop as a research hub, or ‘umbrella lab’, where organisations and research groups can work together – just as long as the focus is on solar energy”, says Bellman.
‘Dancing’ solar panels
The equipment that now dominates the Trondheim skyline is at the leading edge of global technology. Among their other features, the panels are bifacial and can absorb solar radiation on both their front and rear sides – ‘dancing’ in time as the sun progresses across the sky. In other words, they will always adopt an orientation to the sun that optimises energy absorption.
“We’ll also be conducting experiments using different kinds of roofing materials and reflector elements with the aim of optimising radiation absorption and reducing fouling and decomposition of the panels”, says Bellmann. We’ll be looking into the entire value chain – from the raw materials to the finished product, as well as investigating how we can recycle solar panels when they have to be replaced”, he says.
The researchers will also be running simulations to see how efficiently the panels perform under all conceivable conditions and, among other things, will use the laboratory to test new solar panel module designs before they come onto the market.
Not only light, but also heat
“An additional focus of our research will be to see how we can capture the heat energy absorbed by the solar panels”, says Bellman’s colleague, researcher Eivind Øvrelid.
“A key future aim will be to exploit both the solar energy and the heat that are generated by the operation of solar panels”, says Bellman “In fact, we currently exploit only 20 percent of the energy absorbed by solar panels. The rest is converted into heat, and we are also looking to capture this. The more energy we can obtain from solar panel installations, the cheaper they will become. This will be good news for both consumers and the climate”, he says.
The Alfa Centauri laboratory is being funded by SINTEF. It is formally incorporated as part of the Norwegian national infrastructure for solar panel research, which in turn has been established with funding from the Research Council of Norway. The partners in the laboratory project are SINTEF, the University of Oslo (UiO), the Norwegian Institute for Energy Research (IFE) and NTNU.