Technology

Cutting the cost of solar power

 By Robin Wylie

The cost of solar power generation could be significantly reduced by replacing metallic components with plastic ones constructed using a 3D printer, a new study has found…

The price of solar panels has fallen dramatically in recent years, however the cost of the mounting equipment on which they sit has remained relatively high. These mounts are usually made using aluminum alloy, and can cost 50-55 percent as much as the solar cells themselves. But in a study published last months, researchers in the United States found that the cost of solar panel mounting could be reduced by between 83 and 92 percent by constructing mounting brackets out of plastic using a 3D printer.

In the study, two researchers from Michigan Technological University used an entry-level 3D printer called a RepRap to build a series of plastic mounting brackets, which they used to support a 1kW solar PV array. The plastic components worked as planned, and managed to support the PV array just as a conventional aluminum brackets would have. What’s more, while metallic brackets are priced at around $575, the 3D-printed variety cost just a fraction of that — around $95 when using commercial “PLA” plastic, or around $50 when using recycled plastic.

Researchers in the US found that the cost of solar panel mounting could be reduced by between 83 and 92 percent

In order to test the durability of the plastic mounts, the researchers then left them outside for an entire year, solar panels attached, to see how they would stand up to the climate of the northern United States. Testing the long-term stability of the 3D-printed mounts in an outdoor setting was important, because some plastics can become brittle upon exposure to UV light, which affects their ability to bear loads. After twelve months, however, the researchers found that the 3D-printed solar cell mounts had maintained their strength, and were still able to support their load adequately.

With 3D printing seemingly everywhere these days, it might seem that something like this should have been tried before. But the study’s co-author, Professor Joshua Pearce, believes that his research group are the first to investigate the application of 3D printing in solar cell mounting. This could be particularly good news in developing countries, where more than a billion people currently live without access to electricity. A 1 kW solar panel can power around 60 light bulbs, enough to illuminate an entire village. By further reducing the cost of small-scale solar projects, the authors believe that incorporating 3D-printed components could “allow [solar power] to be adapted to custom applications in any region in the world more easily than any commercial alternatives.”

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.