Kyle Schurman
Apr 23, 2012

Improved solar panels with OLEDs

Heliatek's technology combines some of the best aspects of OLED displays with solar panels. Saving energy and greener methods of generating energy are always at the forefront of peoples’ minds during the spring time, especially around Earth Day.

Much of the hope of finding that Holy Grail of green energy creation has centered around two areas -- wind power and solar power -- which have had quite a few difficulties in living up to the hype and promise. The amount of energy they are able to generate versus the cost and difficulty in implemention has remained too high to replace fossil fuels.

Work continues, however, on finding better methods for making use of wind and solar power generation, and a recent announcement from a start-up company in Germany may provide some illumination on a new method of solar power generation.

The company, called Heliatek, has developed a technology that combines some of the best aspects of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays with solar panel displays, looking to create a set of solar panels that will be lighter and more flexible than current models. In the future, Heliatek is also looking toward incorporating its technology in windows. The flexible OLED solar panels would be semitransparent, allowing them to give homeowners a good view of the outside world while generating electrical power when the sun hits them. Because of the lightweight nature of these OLED panels, they would be able to be incorporated into windows.

While this sounds like a great idea at first glance, the initial cost estimates for the OLED solar panels will be higher than for traditional solar panels, which doesn’t really solve the problem that solar currently struggles with: generating power too inefficiently for the cost.

The flexibility of the new solar panels makes them very versatile. In addition, it doesn’t appear that these flexible panels will be able to generate more power per cell than traditional, rigid solar panels. As of now, traditional solar panels are considered about 15 percent efficient in converting solar energy to electricity. The Heliatek panels initially will be about 8 percent efficient, which isn’t going to help to solve the larger issue with solar energy. Governmental subsidies for those people and businesses that use solar power could help the company make up the difference, at least initially. The subsidies are higher in Heliatek’s home country of Germany than in some other areas of the world, which may provide some benefits to the OLED solar panels.

Still, as the Heliatek model matures over the next few years, it’s expected that the cost of manufacturing could drop and the efficiency could increase. Additionally, the flexible solar panels could be used in areas where rigid panels wouldn’t be useable. Areas where the weight of a conventional panel would be prohibitive, for example, would be great for the Heliatek panels, like the windows described earlier. In addition, the OLED panels should do a better job versus traditional solar panels in areas where cloudy conditions are more common, as well as in areas where heat is extremely high.

The bottom line is that solar panels will continue to struggle to gain a significant hold in the market until something changes to allow them to generate more power at a lower price. The incorporation of OLED features in the solar panels doesn’t yet fix this primary problem. Adding a niche component to solar panels, which is what it initially appears the OLED solar panel technology will be, isn’t going to change the overall picture.

Until traditional solar panels are more efficient and have better results in power generation, it’s tough to become too excited about this announcement. Hold that thought for five years down the road, though, and you may have something that’s worth getting excited about.