Napoleon III received a solar-powered machine in 1866 that was claimed to be able to provide endless energy. Augustin Mouchot’s Solar Concentrator was so impressive to the Emperor of France that he gave him funding for its further development.
Scientists began to improve and adapt the technology to residential applications after the success of Mouchot’s invention, which was about the size of a house. In a few decades thousands of US homes were equipped with solar water heaters that could be used to heat homes, cook food, and wash clothes. However, the oil boom of the 20th century led to a decline in popularity for clean energy.
After 50 years, we could be close to realising the potential of renewable energy that was seen by early pioneers.
Researchers claim that they are close to developing commercially viable alternatives to solar panels, which could turn homes into self-sufficient power plants.
The new technologies make it possible to live off-grid, which was once a lifestyle option for an alternative lifestyle. It is now a viable solution to ensure a sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
What are these new technologies and how might a home powered by solar energy look in the future?
Solar-powered windows could finally make it to the commercial market, and this estimate may be low.
A team of scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland, achieved a record-breaking efficiency for dye-sensitised (DSC) solar cells. This has opened up new commercial opportunities for see-through panels.
DSCs are transparent and can be used in greenhouses, glass facades and windows. They offer a theoretical performance/price ratio that is competitive with fossil fuel electric generation.
The SwissTech Convention Center has already installed photovoltaics, but this latest record of efficiency could be the beginning of a wider rollout.
Solar energy accounts for less than 10% of global electricity. The Sun provides enough energy in one hour to power all the planet's electrical needs for a year.
Solar panels are limited by the fact that they require a roof or land to be used. But what if you could turn entire buildings into generators of electricity? Solar paint, according to scientists, could be used in the future at low costs.
Photovoltaic quantum dots convert light into electricity. These dots are theoretically 11 percent more efficient than conventional solar panels.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield believe that spray-on solar panels, using a liquid version of the miracle material perovskite in its liquid form, could be used for 'practical mass-applications' in the next few years. The technology, when combined with solar windows could allow every surface of a structure that touches the Sun to generate energy.
According to the Office for National Statistics there are over a million acres in private gardens across the UK. However, the solar panels take up a lot of space, making them presently an unpopular choice for many homeowners.
SolarBotanic Trees, a UK-based startup, aims to change that with its bio-inspired canopy design. It includes integrated seating and outlets as well as a shaded canopy. SolarBotanic Trees' chief executive Chris Shelley told The Independent in an interview earlier this month that the company is planning to install its first trees next year.
He said that the idea was to place solar panels on a dome-shaped surface, like the canopy of an oak tree, then install a battery system in the trunk. The trees could be placed in gardens as a supplement to rooftop solar panels, or they could even provide enough electricity for a medium-sized home.
Solar trees are designed to address the need for batteries that can provide power even when the sun isn't shining. Many companies offer home battery packs, including Tesla's Powerwall which has been installed in over half a million households around the globe.
Tesla's Investor Day earlier this year projected that it would take $10 trillion for a "sustainable energy civilisation" to be achieved, but less than 0.2% of Earth's surface will be required to do so.
Dr Brian Azzopardi, a renewables expert, believes that the rapid advancements in battery and solar technology over the past few years have allowed individuals to reduce their dependency on the energy grid and move towards a sustainable lifestyle.
The Independent reports that Dr Azzopardi, the chair of the Foundation for Innovation and Research of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology, says: 'It's revolutionised the renewables sector and given individuals unprecedented opportunities to become more self-sufficient in their energy requirements.'
As battery technology continues to develop, it becomes more affordable and efficient. This makes a lifestyle "off-the grid" increasingly possible for a wider variety of people.
The emerging technology may benefit communities without access to an electrical grid in the same way some developing countries and localities have shifted from landlines to mobiles.
Zola Electric is a startup that targets underserved markets. It offers 'electrical equipment in a package' to places without electricity. The solar panel and battery system can power a house. Bill Lenihan, CEO of the company, called it a "game changer" for 3 billion people who live without reliable or affordable energy.
He told The Independent that 'our solutions are installed in homes and businesses in 10 countries on four continents. We serve over 2 million customers.' They deliver distributed, clean and digital energy solutions to those who need them most.
In order for developed countries to achieve self-sufficiency with clean energy, they must first electrify all their energy sources - from gas-powered stoves to gasoline-powered cars.
Mark Jacobson is a professor at Stanford University of civil and environmental engineers. He says recent technological advancements and incentives make it economically sensible to convert homes into renewable energy stations.
The Independent reported that 'costs have dropped so much over the past few years and tax credits so plentiful, most homeowners are able to install solar and battery systems at home.' Professor Jacobson detailed his transition in a book he published in 2023, No Miracles Needed : How today's technology can save our climate and clean our air.
"I do not pay energy bills. I generate 120 percent of the electricity that I consume, and sell the remainder back to my utility. In six years, I have paid off the entire solar + battery system. My energy will be free for 25 years.