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Solar news: Tesla plans Australian “virtual power plant,” scientists make an organic solar cel

In this week’s Solar News Roundup, we take a look at an ambitious new project from Elon Musk and Tesla, as well as a report from a Berkeley lab on the potential future of high-efficiency organic solar cells.

Musk’s new vision: a massive “virtual power plant” in Australia

After successfully building and turning on the world’s largest lithium-ion battery installation this past December, Elon Musk and Tesla are back in Australia with a new energy storage project: a 50,000 home virtual power plant powered by solar energy.

The South Australian government is planning to install solar panels and Tesla Powerwall batteries on at least 50,000 homes over the next four years to create a 250 megawatt (MW) “virtual power plant.” The plant will feed excess energy into the grid, and a central control system will draw energy from the network and distribute it to the rest of the state when there is high energy demand.

How does a virtual power plant work? Instead of a central generating facility producing energy for the grid (like a coal plant or solar farm), a virtual power plant produces power from individual homes connected to the electric grid. In the case of Tesla’s new project, any home with an installed solar panel system and battery will produce and store energy from the sun. When needed, the excess power will be fed into the grid to provide power to the rest of South Australia. In a region recently plagued by unreliable energy and power outages, a virtual power plant setup with a network of solar batteries offers a more dependable energy supply.

The plan is similar to a joint project between Tesla and Vermont utility Green Mountain Power, but at a much larger scale. Green Mountain Power leases home batteries to its customers for $15 per month. The end result is also a virtual power plant made from a network of 2,000 Powerwall batteries. The virtual plant creates a system where energy can be drawn from the batteries by the utility when energy demand is high across the state.

Officials believe that the new virtual plant can meet 20 percent of South Australia’s average daily energy requirements. Additionally, houses in the plant network could see their energy bills lowered by 30 percent. As Tesla continues to prove the benefits of solar power to solve complex energy problems, more projects like this one could pop up across the globe. The economic, environmental, and practical benefits of projects like Tesla’s new virtual power plant are clear, and this project is a positive sign for the future of solar energy and battery storage.

Scientists make promising breakthrough in organic solar cell technology

A group of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have made a significant breakthrough in a type of organic solar cell technology called singlet fission. At its most basic, singlet fission is a process by which light energy can be converted directly to electricity. Light particles are captured in semiconductors, and then the resultant current is captured via electrodes.

According to Steven G. Louie, the director of a new research consortium at LBNL, “We have actually discovered a new mechanism that allows us to try to design better material.” The researchers were able to describe what conditions allow singlet fission to take place at very fast rates. The next step is to use these new insights to create a material and solar cell that will allow for singlet fission to occur rapidly, which could lead to vastly improved organic solar cell efficiencies in years to come.

As solar cell efficiencies continue to increase, the “return on investment” argument for going solar only improves. Higher solar panel efficiencies are always good news for solar shoppers, and the price per watt of going solar will likely continue to fall as these new technologies allow homeowners to produce greater amounts of energy. And while innovations like this new organic cell technology won’t become available to solar shoppers immediately, breakthroughs like this are a signal of innovation to come.

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