At MIT or Massively Innovative Teams, in lieu of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a major new innovation in mounting photovoltaic solar panels should revolutionize the industry.  It’s based on a simple and when thought through – obvious observation.

On a clear bright day you’ll notice the shadows are a dark area with little light.  But on a day with some overcast the shadows are not so dark and as the overcast intensifies, the shadows can seem to disappear.

One might think, the light is down so much the light and the shadows are equalized, but with some thought – that can’t be.  Instead the high clouds do cut back on the total light, but importantly, the light is scattered sending some in indirectly to light up the shadowed area.  The folks at MIT had an “AHA!” moment in a very big way.

The typical solar panel today, actually all of them, are as flat as pancakes and respond best to directly incoming light. Mounted up on a roof they are a paving of dark glass.  Users can increase the efficiency by pouring in an investment of moving parts called solar tracking that aim the flat sheets to match the sun and can get a very good result. It’s a very costly motorized computer controlled mechanism with two axes to handle to keep things lined up over a day and through the year. It’s a maintenance task of considerable magnitude and expense.

So the MIT team came up with a three-dimensional solar panel design called 3DPV (3 Dimensional Photo Voltaic).  It’s such a good idea the peaks in power generation for the 3DPV designs are better with some overcast light scattering.  The sum of the effects yields an increase in the daily energy generation of 3DPV in cloudy weather to more than a flat panel in clear weather.
3D Photovoltaic Solar Panel Designs and Test Results. Click image for more info.
The Marco Bernardi team at MIT simulated the performance of various shapes and tested several of these on the roof of a building at MIT. Their results indicate that the 3DPV panel structures can increase the amount of energy that can be generated in a given area by as much as 20 times. The structures can also double the number of useful peak hours of generation and reduce the seasonal variation as well.

There is likely a bunch of pending orders being postponed today.

The new mounting structure is simply a cube, open at the top and covered inside and out with photovoltaic cells, like a box with a panel on both sides of the four sides and one in the bottom. That arrangement can generate as much 3.8 times the power of a flat panel with the same footprint. By comparison, a solar tracking mount, control system and activating machinery produces an increase of only up to 1.8 times.

For buyers it’s the money.  While a cube has 9 times the surface area for panels, the panels are cheap.  It’s the installation, energy connections and current conversion that are still the big dollars.  For most buyers the area to work with is the limitation.  Now the calculation has changed – nearly 4 times the energy for the same area with nearly the same cost for the installation, energy connections and conversion.

This whole thing has to be rethought from the engineering of panels to maximize output from the 3D perspective and drive down the watt-hour cost at the panel output on to the buyers rethinking the investment and the payback with a much-accelerated amortization.

Bernardi suggests the 3DPV panel structures could be shipped as flat packages that easily “pop up” into 3D structures when assembled.

MIT has made the entire pdf file of the published report available to download. Its fair to say every panel builder worldwide will be studying the MIT result intensely today. There’s enough information there to replicate and take the engineering concept much further.  New product choices can’t be far off.

With silicon and printed panels getting very cheap, with a small if any increase of investment for the installation and power management the industry could get a big boost this year.

Please note the Bernardi group has done the math to also show there is an increased range for photovoltaic cells as well.

Also this is just round one.  The idea is a revolutionary start on a new photovoltaic future.  Others are going to take this further and the consumer choices are going to be much more attractive.  The calculations may have a given area, a given level of investment, a required payback period or other baseline thresholds for starting the process to adopt the technology.

What the MIT team has done is shift those thresholds much closer to many more people.

The paper is well worth the time for reading and consideration.  More energy by area, beating out sun tracking, increasing by double the number of useful peak hours and reducing the seasonal and latitude variation of solar energy generation, with even higher productivity in case of cloudy weather all adds up a Major Breakthrough.


10 Comments so far

  1. John on December 19, 2011 7:46 AM

    I was actually thinking the same thing since I am contemplating a new house build with panels.

    For a typical 5kW install, the various vendors give $25-33K which is far too steep for the 700W provided. But with refurbed panels sometimes at 50c/W I can DIT build the system for $5k or so.

    To cut the cost rather than put all flat on the roof with usual licensed installer, I would put them on 2 or 3 narrow rows on the flat roof of the garage. My state likely won’t let me do a DIY on the house roof but I don’t think they can stop me on the garage or if ground mounted. Using 2,3 rows also reduces the frontage, I don’t really want them to be an eyesore.

    I know that there would be some shadow in the morning and evening but for mid day they would all be full on. Will need to run the nos. The thinking is panels are only about 1/3 the total cost of a regular install, but for a DIY install they are cheap enough to allow some losses.

  2. John on December 19, 2011 8:00 AM

    Having reread the article, I think it is taking the cheapness of panels way too far.

    The panels are cheap only for nameplate, but for northern use you still need about 7* nameplate to get the avg Watts you want.

    All this MIT work shows is that you can to some extent fold up the panels that would have been flat into these weird structures so they can take up less space and likely install on a flat surface. They won’t make solar systems any cheaper if they use too many extra panels but it looks like an interesting option to save space.

  3. Benjamin Cole on December 19, 2011 11:05 AM

    Add this MIT development to the better results mentioned in the previous post. Seems like we are getting closer and closer to viable solar panels–panels people install for the money, not to show they are green.

  4. Daniel Bower on December 19, 2011 6:49 PM

    Great news. I was thinking the same as Benjamin Cole – that this innovation combined with others posted on this site may eventually make solar more viable for greater latitudes and more economical too.

    I wonder how the cube design will perform in regards to weather factors like wind and snow accumulation.

    Thanks to MIT for sharing their results so completely.

  5. Lee on December 20, 2011 1:59 AM

    I am wondering with the new ergonomic wind turbines why they could not be entwined and enhance each other. The box shape for the new collectors would be a great way to have the best of both worlds. The wind turbines could turn the collectors and make up for any down time of the solar. senny in Cal is making the dimpled wind turbines that spin around not as the old type do.

  6. jeff s on December 21, 2011 10:36 AM

    Newsflash folks. This is another poorly researched concept reported by someone that should have taken a pv101 class.

    This idea is not practical from a cost standpoint. People today dont install solar for environmental reasons. Well over 90% of solar pv is installed for the investment opportunity (7-15 yr payback in the active solar states).

    I sure wish we would stop seeing people that dont know much about solar giving so much attention to these hairbrained ideas, but snakeoil salesmen are very compelling i suppose.

  7. Stacey Wilks on December 24, 2011 6:20 AM

    I really like your innovative creation of solar photovoltaic. I think that it would be useful for this new generation. I think that many people would appreciate to have that nice new creation.

  8. Rick DeLancey on December 24, 2011 6:35 AM

    Increasing the efficiency of current technology simply by changing the manner that it is installed is a completely practical and immediately applicable innovation. The knowledge gained adds the value of photovoltaic panel installations either for current products or future improvements. The space saving benefits such structure to go vertical instead of being limited to a single angled plane will increase the number of sites solar can be installed. A great observation by MIT hopefully we will see it put to good use in the near future.

  9. SHARP panels on February 26, 2012 4:38 AM

    About this, which are the best photovoltaics solar brands in the world?. We are thinking in make an small pv plant and we are not sure about the best brand.

  10. André Pereira on August 24, 2012 4:16 AM

    This concept is very interesting! It shows that we could increase efficiency by recapturing the reflected radiation.

    But the claim by this study is relevant in my opinion, when space is a constraint. The results that they show, should also be presented in a different way, they are putting in the same graph, 1 flat panel compared with a cube with more than 1 flat panels and also a tower with even more panels so of course it will produce more energy.

    I would like to see the results shown with the equivalent number of solar panels disposed in these shapes. The difference between captured energy for cloudy weather is obvious but I would say that by making each shape “equivalent” it would give this study much more credibility.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind