The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Solar Revolution

So what’s with those fancy new solar panels your neighbour Marsha got? And how about Allen with the solar roof tiles?

Yeah, green energy is green energy, but where did all these options come from 🤔?

To start, most big companies have been relaxing off fossil-fuel profits for decades. So in the meantime, engineers have really been at it making more solar options out the wazoo.

If you read my last article on nuclear fusion, you’ll know the sun is the ultimate source of energy. As Elon Musk said:

“We Have This Handy Fusion Reactor In The Sky Called The Sun.”

Well, solar panels are one of the simplest ways to use that energy. So simple actually, that we’ve known how to use them for over a century!

At their heart, all solar panels work the same way. Basically, sunlight knocks around atoms in those panels causing electron orbital… (ewwwww, back to chemistry 🤮!)

Okay fine, to avoid the high school chemistry, let’s go to gym class. Say you have a flock of teenage boys throwing dodge balls at each other. The dodge balls (sunlight) knock around the students (atoms) to release angry teen spirit (energy).

Now solar panels are still fashionistas. So they accessorise their materials, efficiencies, lifespans, and everything else they can think of to stand out after these basics.

They even have generation wars! Just like Millenials vs. Gen Z, solar panels battle it out in 3 generations (creatively named Gen. I, II, and III ;-)

Essentially, each generation is a little bit more extra than the last (although, they do copy each other a lot).

We’re diving deep into solar, 110% battle-of-the-generations style.

Now that may seem weird, but stay with me for a second.

Generation I had the first types of solar panels, *dominating* the markets then and now. Just like the baby boomers, Gen. I is the sensible, reliable, not-as-ecological first round of solar panels 👴.

Today, you’ll find many types of p̶o̶k̶e̶m̶o̶n Gen. I panels, with fun names like ‘Polycrystalline’, ‘Amorphous’, and ‘Monocrystalline!’ These make up almost all the solar panels you picture (y’know… like on the friendly-neighbourhood-ecowarrior’s roof).

All three types are made of Silicon, but some use lower quantities or purities of it. That brings the efficiency down, but at least you can save 💸 to later splurge on whatever the trendy shoes are right now.

Still, just like that one cranky Boomer in the neighbourhood, sometimes Gen. I’s disadvantages are a bit too apparent. Most are bulky, use up lots of Silicon, and are relatively expensive (noooo, the trendy shoes…).

That’s why the ever-productive engineers kept at it, to give rise to the (ALL-MIGHTY)… Gen. II!

Okay. I said it. Gen. II isn’t as… ahem… bulky as Gen. I.

Usually, they’re called ‘thin-film’ solar panels because of that. You’ll see them on everything from simple calculators to fancy roof shingles (remember those futuristic-Elon-Musk-thingies?)

Since they’re thinner, they also use less material than Gen. I cells (not to mention, their sleek architecture style is TOTALLY *in* right now!!! 😍).

What’s even better is their cost. The panels are so thin and flexible, they can just be printed on paper-like rolls! Obviously, this is a LOT cheaper than Gen. I’s hyper-technical Silicon manufacturing.

Here’s a perfect example of roll-to-roll cells. Convenient AND uber-chic!

Still, beauty on the outside doesn’t translate to beauty on the inside… not for these monsters.

Many of them are inefficient compared to Gen. I panels and take up lots more land to get the same energy output. And the ones that are efficient use toxic metals like Gallium or Tellenium (what happened to all-organic man? 🌿☮)

While trying to save money and lose weight, the Gen. II panels apparently forgot they shouldn’t y’know… kill the entire planet (now where have I heard that before, MILLENIALS?).

By now, it’s clear that Gen. I and II made a lot of mistakes. Whether it be high costs or ruining the environment, they left a lot of headaches to deal with today.

But luckily, Gen. III came around to the rescue 🦸! Just like the bright, open-minded, and creative Gen. Z children, these new solar panels finally promise to address all those past issues.

This new generation really does have discoveries out the wazoo:
1. Consider the one-with-nature panels that use plant photosynthesis
2. Or the all-organic (radtacular, man!) panels made of carbon
3. And cheaper, plastic panels that absorb more types of light!

For *those* people that want to be technical, ‘Artificial Photosynthesis’ describes all those panels copying plants and ‘Organic Photovoltaics’ are the ones with the carbon-based materials.

All this progress gets more people access to that good-vibe sun energy and does it more cheaply too (WITHOUT destroying the planet this time!).

Of course, no cute Gen. Z toddler is perfect (not even yours DEBRA, so stop spamming on Facebook about her!). And it’s the same story with these new, eco-friendly panels.

For one, none of them can match the efficiencies of old generations (think 4x worse). And some of them still take up too much land or use toxic metals ☠️.

But *by far*, the biggest issue is their unreliability. Just like toddlers throwing temper tantrums, Gen. III panels have a bad habit of y’know… ceasing to exist after the slightest bad weather (Rain, rain. Go away… no really, my solar panels are dying).

That being said, Gen. III has been the most rapidly improving out of all solar panels, so the future looks bright (get it… cause’ it’ll be powered by the sun? :-)

So now you know that Allan and Marsha’s solar relics are no match for those Gen. III panels! Guess who can get some and be the coolest neighbour on the block 😎?

All things considered, here’s a recap of current solar technologies:

  • All solar panels have the same process of converting light to electricity.
  • Gen. I panels are reliable and efficient, but cost too much.
  • Gen. II panels are thin and cheap, but ruin the environment.
  • Gen. III panels are trying to solve all the previous problems at once.

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Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/