Solar Panels Just Got Cheaper — And More DIY

Green energy and sustainability aren't slowing down, both as movements and as products and services. One reason solar energy in particular has caught on is how quickly it's become affordable for ordinary homeowners — and because it tends to pay them back, by reducing and in some cases even reversing their electric bills. Now researchers at Columbia University have developed a new type of solar panel that isn't just more efficient, it could help the industry straight-up explode.

Engineers and chemists came together to develop what they call "a new, scalable, and low-cost 'dip and dry' method for fabricating a highly efficient selective solar absorber." Basically, they figured out a way to make a material using foil coated with nanoparticles that absorbs heat and light without losing the energy from either. Usually solar panels rely on photovoltaic cells, which create electricity when photons knock electrons off atoms, leading to electric fields that can flow where they're needed. This new material also uses the energy created when solar panels heat up, rather losing it to radiation.

The efficiency on these new panels is kind of out-of-this-world too. They're able to absorb sunlight for longer, since the angle of the sun can limit collection when it's very low in the sky. The research team reports that these panels collect 97 percent of sunlight when the sun is overhead. Right now, commercial solar panels are considered highly efficient when they convert 22 percent of what they collect. Higher baseline collection means lower electric bills for customers.

Granted, this is just-announced research, and products using this process probably won't hit the market for a while. Still, the research team is most excited about using these panels to provide energy in low-income communities around the world. The methods are apparently so simple, they can be manufactured at low cost, without environmentally costly factories, and practically on the go. "We only needed strips of metals, scissors to cut the strips to size, a salt solution in a beaker, and a stopwatch to time the dipping process," said the study lead's author, Jyotirmoy Mandal.

In the meantime, solar energy installations can mean tax credits for homeowners now. Check out the U.S. Department of Energy's guidelines for helping evaluate whether they're the right choice for you.