Ground-breaking discoveries, innovations and inventions have helped make renewable energy much more accessible through the years. Since 2004, capacity for all types of renewable energy has been growing steadily, with solar power leading the way. Together with breakthroughs in science and technology, national and global policy shifts and new financing schemes have also contributed to renewable energy’s entry into the mainstream. Here are some ideas and solutions that are slowly but surely changing the game and pulling us toward the ultimate goal – a 100% renewable future.

  1. Kirigami-inspired solar panels

Solar panels held in a fixed position by stationary mounts peak at noon but are not able to follow the sun’s movement throughout the day, unlike photovoltaic trackers that provide maximum exposure to sunlight all day, regardless of the sun’s angle. But conventional trackers are extremely heavy and very expensive to install and maintain. To remedy this, a group of researchers working together with a team of paper artists from the University of Michigan developed an innovative new solar cell design inspired by kirigami, a variation of the Japanese art of origami that involves cutting as well as folding paper. They use thin-film gallium arsenide solar cells (about as thick as paper) which are strategically cut, stretched and tilted, and can be controlled extremely accurately to follow the movement of the sun – providing a cheaper, much more lightweight alternative tracking system.

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  1. Solar panels you can print

Although the price of solar panels have dropped significantly in recent years, the costs are still preventing them from becoming truly mainstream. To explore alternatives to the typical silicon cells, a consortium from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has developed printable solar inks which are now on the verge of commercialization. These inks can be applied through a range of methods – including spray coating, reverse gravure, slot-die coating, and screen printing – onto almost any surface, such as gadgets, windows, packaging, shade umbrellas, and tents. When solar inks can finally match the efficiency of traditional silicon solar PV cells, the market will have a cheaper, much more flexible and lightweight solar power alternative.

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  1. Energy-generating kites

Using the same principles as a conventional wind turbine, Google’s Makani energy kites use lightweight, flexible materials that make them more flexible and aerodynamic, allowing them to reach higher altitudes and access stronger winds. As a result, each kite can generate up to 50% more energy than its conventional turbine counterpart. These innovative kites are made up of four parts: the kite, the tether, the ground station, and the computer system. While up in the air, the wind forces the kite’s rotors to rotate, driving a generator to produce electricity, which travels down the tether to the grid. The ground station holds onto the tether while the computer system guides the kite’s flight path for maximum energy generation.

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  1. Tidal energy

Like geothermal, tidal power promises a stable, predictable renewable energy source – “as long as the moon is in the sky” – but what’s critical is scaling these projects and making them commercially viable. This year, a Scottish company made history by doing just that. The Shetland Tidal Array in the Shetland Isles became the word’s first tidal power system to connect to a grid and deliver electricity to residents of the islands. This is definitely a breakthrough in the field of ocean power, but the effects of tidal energy on the immediate environment and ecosystem are not yet fully determined, which means more research has to be done to resolve any potential issues.

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