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The European Union and Beyond

Ice as a Novel Material for Solar Panels in Cold Climates: Potential for Adoption and Usage

Daniel Helman
Prescott College
Daniel Helman
Prescott College

The possibility exists for creating solar panels from ice very cheaply, i.e. for the cost of the tray, wires and tensioners to hold the wires down. These would only be workable in locales wherein the ambient air temperature is cold, but the low cost makes them attractive and suggests future wide adoption. How to get there? Should governments rely on planned large-scale initiatives, on local initiatives, or on the marketplace? Various models and case studies are presented.

Reports of energy development in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, comprising former Soviet republics) suggest that energy development leads to economic growth in the short term, and that there is a feedback mechanism that operates in the long term. See Apergis & Payne's 2009 article “Energy Consumption and Economic Growth” in Energy Economics. Thus energy development could be undertaken as a large-scale government initiative with economy as justification. In New York State in the US, standard solar power generation in centralized plants delivers savings to users (i.e. rate payers and tax payers) on the order of 15¢ to 40¢ per kWh. See Perez, Zweibel & Hoff's 2011 article “Solar Power Generation in the US” in Energy Policy and Branker & Pearce's 2010 “Financial return for government support of large-scale thin-film solar photovoltaic manufacturing in Canada” in the same journal for more examples.

Yet the situation for solar panels from ice is unique. Extra photovoltaic panels (PV) from ice could be added to homes, businesses or plants that already have PV very easily since the energy storage component is already in place. Energy storage can take the form of batteries, ultracapacitors, fuel cells or a (hybrid) combination of these, and energy storage is a current area of scientific and economic exploration. Tesla Motors recently announced a partnership to provide battery-based home energy storage cheaply (probably around $2500 per unit).

Perhaps it will be a national government need to promote a nascent energy storage technology sector. Demand could be placed very high with the introduction of PV from ice. Once many units are in place, there will be a great deal of flexibility, and innovation related to solar panel technology could be promoted locally. Energy storage units are the key here. If industrial development within renewables is desired, ice may be a useful lead in.

Notably, some flexibility is required. For example, it's not known what the effect of different substances dissolved in the ice would be. Perhaps nickel particles added to water as it freezes would create extra layers that would make ice PV more productive than silicon. Local initiatives or a feed in tariff (FIT) would promote experimentation to a greater extent than a national energy plant program. Citizen science could have the day.

Ultimately, ice PV policy depends on governmental and societal goals. If there is no interest in developing PV technology generally, then letting the market work unfettered would bypass any development incentive and yet allow for adoption if personal desire dictates. If the PV sector is already well-developed, then a broad policy set might be negotiated with the participation of major businesses and academia, maybe including a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). If novel technological development is desired, then local initiatives and FIT makes sense. Indeed, Solangi et al.'s 2010 “Review on Global Solar Energy Policy” in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews highlights the efficacy of FIT and RPS in a variety of settings.

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