UPDATED: April 12 at 2:30 pm. See update below.

A solar panel is an amazing thing. Put it in the sunshine and it makes electricity for free. No emissions, no noise, just clean renewable power. Add a bunch of them and some battery storage and you can have your own microgrid right at home and never pay a utility bill again. What’s not to like? The problem is, a solar panel doesn’t always perform at peak efficiency. It needs to be aligned correctly to take maximum advantage of the sun’s rays.

Solar Panel Tower

Image credit: MIT


Lots of factors affect how much electricity a solar panel makes. Which way it faces, the angle of the roof its on, what latitude it is at, what season of the year it is, how cold it is outside, and weather that obscures the sun all factor in. Under adverse conditions, it may make so little electricity it costs more than its worth.

solar panel towerResearchers at MIT think they have a solution. Instead of laying solar panels flat on a roof, they tried arranging them in various ways. They burned through a ton of supercomputer time trying to find the optimal arrangement. In the end, they came up with a way of arranging them in three dimensional patterns. By placing them vertically in towers, power output is two to twenty times greater than what a single panel with the same footprint mounted on a roof would produce.

The best part it, the biggest boost came in situations where tradition arrangements are least effective — locations far from the equator, in winter months, and on cloudy days. The new findings, based on both computer modeling and outdoor testing of real modules, have been published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The basic physical reason for the improvement in power output and for the more uniform output over time is that the vertical surfaces in a 3D structure can collect much more sunlight during mornings, evenings and winters, when the sun is closer to the horizon, says co-author Marco Bernardi, a graduate student at MIT.

The complete 3D systems costs more to manufacture that traditional flat roof systems, but that cost can be offset by the greater amount of electricity created. Going vertical may also make it possible to install photovoltaics in areas where there is not enough room for a horizontal system.  An accordion-like tower could be shipped flat and easily assembled on site says Professor Jeremy Grossman. A tower could be installed in a parking lot to provide a charging station for electric vehicles, he says.

Not everything that works in the lab is commercially viable in the real world. But the MIT research is a promising new technology that may help expand the number of places where clean, renewable solar power can be used effectively.

Photo credit: Allegra Boverman/MIT News

UPDATE: Apparently, I am not terribly well versed in this subject. Two commenters have suggested there are inaccuracies in the story. Rather than argue a point in a subject in which I am weak (ask me anything about maintaining an MGB, though, and I’m your guy), I am going to recommend you review the comments posted by JamesWimberley and KenC.

If I understand their argument (and each seems well versed and well intentioned) the MIT “breakthough” only applies if these 3D towers cover the same area of a given roof that conventional flat solar panels would cover in a typical PV system. I have amended to the last sentence of the third paragraph in accordance with what I take those comments to mean.

Please read the comments and make up your own mind. If I have mislead anyone, it was not intentional.