Higher Education and Sustainability

Future of solar energy could be made in Michigan

MAREC client has applied for patents for its innovative solar panel.

December 6, 2013
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A business incubator client at Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center has developed a solar panel that addresses one of the major limitations of solar energy.

The device, Solar 24, captures solar energy during daylight hours, storing it in a built-in battery system that allows it to distribute electricity 24 hours a day, unlike traditional solar panels.

Jim Wolter, founder of Energy Partners LLC and professor emeritus at GVSU, said that while he and his colleagues have not invented a new technology, what they have done is merged three technologies in a unique way.

Solar 24 combines energy generation, energy storage and an innovative control system.

“We have not invented solar panels, we have not invented batteries, but we are providing an integration along with the microcomputer controls that allows a user a wide range of functions,” Wolter said.

He said the biggest drawback in solar energy is its intermittency — energy can’t be generated without sunlight. The battery allows for energy storage and, therefore, decreases or even gets rid of that intermittency, allowing for power access 24 hours a day.

He noted solar panels alone cannot “load follow,” which means they cannot respond to an increased level of demand.

“If there is a dip in voltage — because there has been something turned on, maybe in a factory or something — there is an immediate decline in the power that is in the circuits. … Particularly, it can’t provide any surge power or any ability to load follow unless you have stored energy in the system that will allow it to perform at higher rates than the sun would be making it perform at on its own,” Wolter explained.

He said Solar 24 has the potential to solve solar power challenges for both small and large systems.

“It is common to use solar panels and batteries in Third World countries and particularly to recharge cell phones. … People may actually walk a half of a day to get their cell phone charged and come back home,” he said.

“To have a solar panel at home or in your village provides immediate access to power, whether it’s for your tablet device or your cell phone or your MP3, so it’s a very useful concept to have one of these on every house in the Third World.”

Wolter noted the impact Solar 24 could have on medical facilities and water purification systems in developing countries, but said he sees the biggest potential impact in the area of education.

“If you have power, you have the ability to do things that will change an entire nation and population in one generation — and I’m thinking particularly of being able to provide an education that would be Internet-based,” he said.

“A child that is growing up in a place with no power will be able to access the Library of Congress or the National Archives or read scientific articles or (have access to) the best literature and art in the world simply through the Internet.”

Solar 24 debuted at the Solar Power International Conference in Chicago in October. MAREC assisted Energy Partners in obtaining the Business Accelerator Fund money from the state that supported development of the prototypes. Wolter said conference attendees who viewed the device were very excited.

Wolter, who has applied for several patents, said there are many applications for Solar 24 and he’s already seen interest from national companies and some in Michigan that could mass-produce the device.

“We are building something here that is fully modular,” he said. “We can make a Solar 24 add-on package that will fit any solar panel anywhere in the world of any size, any power reading, and that is why we hope that we can really maintain close local control on not just the design and the eventual improvements, but also in making it a Michigan-made product that could, in fact, be an export as well as something not just for Michigan, but for the United States in terms of balance of trade.”

Wolter noted that West Michigan is now “battery central,” with two large battery production facilities located in the region.

“The world of solar electricity is growing at 40 percent per year compounded,” he said. “I can’t point out very many industries that grow at a 40 percent compound rate.

“Right now we are in what we call the growth phase of solar electric energy, and it’s got several years to go on a very steep growth curve. So it makes an ideal marriage, in my mind, of putting technology and business demand together, and I think it’s going to be a very robust and growing industry.”

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