Looking for the sunny side

A University of Reading spin-out company is on the verge of commercialising solar energy devices that are both more efficient and half the cost of conventional solar panels.

Whitfield Solar claims to have achieved a significant advance in solar concentrators, which use mirrors or lenses to focus sunlight and make better use of a solar panel’s surface area. Equipped with electronic tracking systems so they can follow the elevation of the sun, solar concentrators are thought to represent a great opportunity to reduce the cost of solar panels.

Whitfield chief executive Dr Clive Weatherby claimed improvements made to the technology at Reading University have resulted in possibly the most cost-effective system to date.

Reluctant to reveal too many technical details of these improvements, he added that while concentrator systems have been employed in the field (particularly in the US) for a number of years, reduction in size and innovative use of solar cells have enabled his team to significantly reduce the cost.

‘Highly efficient but cost-effective cells combined with low-cost optical elements have given us a real opportunity to halve the current cost of clean solar electricity generation. When we enter the market we hope to be at prices significantly below those at present – lower than conventional solar panels and concentrators,’ he said.

Weatherby explained that while the methodology is well understood, the chief challenge in developing a commercially viable product has been designing something that is both optically precise and also robust enough to withstand 20-30 years of operation.

A manufacturing process for the devices could be up and running within eight months, followed by the first commercial application. Weatherby said that this is likely to be a utility application in a ‘sunny’ developed country such as Spain. He said the company planned to announce specific customers within six months.

The company also anticipates licensing the technology for manufacture in developing countries where it could be used to provide electricity for schools and hospitals.Jon Excell