Solar Energy: How Northwestern Research’s Solar Efforts are Transforming the Industry

As the United States struggles to reduce its dependency on oil, many are looking for renewable energy sources. Alternative energy is becoming a serious concern, and with good reason; the US energy industry is responsible for more than a quarter of the global emission of greenhouse gases.

Globally, there are more than 400 million solar-powered devices (such as cell phones, tablets and laptops) and many more are being manufactured.

Northwestern Sustainable Technology (Northwestern ST) is a technology-transfer company that assists university researchers in transforming their findings into commercially viable technologies. Founded in 2003, the company has assisted more than 250 researchers from 14 universities bring new products to market.

Northwestern ST has developed a special interest in the development of solar energy technologies and how best to commercialize them. The following will examine how Northwestern ST’s solar efforts are helping to transform the industry.

ST’s Innovative Approach

The most recognizable symbol of Northwestern ST is the Sun Exchange, a device that allows homeowners to sell solar energy to utilities. In 2014, the company was the recipient of the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. Tufts Prize for Innovation in Energy. The prize is awarded annually by Tufts University and recognizes Northwestern ST for its pioneering efforts in sustainable energy. The company is also a member of the BizEaze & Better World Businesses organizations which supports its continued efforts to increase its efforts to reduce its environmental impact and become more sustainable.

Northwestern ST’s Sun Exchange

The Sun Exchange allows homeowners to sell excess solar energy to utilities. The device was developed in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. When placed on the roof of a house, the Sun Exchange connects wirelessly to nearby utility lines and allows homeowners to sell solar energy to California utilities, including PG&E, SCE and SDG&E. In the future, NorthWestern ST envisions Sun Exchanges integrated into homes, offices and even public areas like parks and squares. The home units will be small and unobtrusive enough to not draw attention but large enough to provide some benefit. The company estimates that there are more than 400 million solar-powered devices (such as cell phones, tablets and laptops) in use globally and many more are being manufactured.

Clean Power

Clean Power is another product that Northwestern ST developed in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. Rather than selling directly to consumers, Clean Power is an on-demand power provider that allows residential and light-commercial customers to generate their own electricity using solar energy. When installed on the roof of a house, the system consists of solar panels that generate electricity, a battery pack that stores the energy and a controller that regulates how the solar energy is converted into electricity as needed.

This product provides customers with an environmentally conscious source of electricity that is generated by a renewable energy source such as solar. In many places, such as New York City, customers can choose to have electricity generated from wind or solar energy and in the future, the company envisions a network of these Clean Power systems across the country.

Home Energy Systems

Building on the success of its Sun and Clean Power products, Northwestern ST developed the Home Energy Systems product line for use in homes and small businesses. In addition to selling solar energy systems, the company also offers energy storage (battery) systems that allow customers to generate their own electricity when needed and in some cases, allows them to sell extra electricity back to the grid.

Home Energy Systems allows homeowners to generate their own electricity using solar energy. When installed on the roof of a home, the system consists of solar panels that generate electricity, a battery pack that stores the energy and a controller that regulates how the solar energy is converted into electricity as needed.

Home Energy Systems provide customers with an environmentally conscious source of electricity that is generated by a renewable energy source such as solar. In many places, such as New York City, customers can choose to have electricity generated from wind or solar energy and in the future, the company envisions a network of these Home Energy Systems across the country.

The Next Generation of Solar Energy

Northwestern ST is at the forefront of the next generation of solar energy, and this can be attributed to its highly innovative and creative engineering team that is passionate about designing products that make a difference.

The following will examine how Northwestern ST’s innovative approach and research are helping to shape the future of solar energy.

The Company’s Efforts to Reduce Its Environmental Impact

As previously mentioned, there is a serious concern regarding global climate change. To that end, Northwestern ST is doing its part to reduce its environmental impact by reducing the energy consumed by the company itself. To achieve this, the company is looking to new energy sources and renewable energy in particular.

The company already has many products, but as the focus shifts to sustainable energy, new products will follow.

Increasing Efficiency

Another way in which the company is seeking to reduce its environmental impact is through increasing its efficiency. Efficiency has two dimensions: first, the amount of energy used to create a unit of product or service and, second, how effectively the resource is used (e.g., does it create value?). When designing new products, the company aims to increase its efficiency by employing a variety of strategies: from improving the materials used to developing new, more efficient manufacturing processes to finding ways to reduce energy use throughout the product’s life cycle.

Utility-Scale Solar

In addition to reducing its impact on the environment, the company is also seeking to increase the amount of electricity it generates from solar energy. To that end, the company is expanding into the utility-scale (or large-scale) market. When operating at peak capacity, a utility-scale solar installation can generate up to 100kW of power – sufficient to power a small to medium-sized house. This makes it an attractive option for generating electricity for businesses and large residences. To achieve this, the company is partnering with some of the biggest players in the industry including SunPower and FSL.

New Research Challenges

As the company expands into the utility-scale market, it will also face some new research challenges. Designing electronics to fit into big solar farms and designing batteries that can last longer at high currents while maintaining their charge are just a couple of the issues that it will have to tackle.

Sustainability In All Aspects

When developing new products, the company aims to consider sustainability from every angle, and this includes the design, manufacturing, and marketing of these products. To that end, the company strives to find innovative and greener ways to design products, produce them and sell them. This includes not just the product’s lifespan but its entire life cycle and the materials used in its construction. The company has also considered energy use and generated as much energy as it consumed during the development and manufacturing of the product.

The Next Generation of Solar Energy

As stated, the company is at the forefront of the next generation of solar energy and this can be attributed to its innovative and creative engineering team that is passionate about designing products that make a difference. The company already has many products, but as the focus shifts to sustainable energy, new products will follow.

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