Call it a two-for-one special in renewable energy. A new concept for marine solar cells could harness energy from both the sun and the waves at the same time.
"They work on many different levels. They can be scaled up to as big a project as you want it to be," said British designer, Phil Pauley.
The idea came to him during a brief brainstorming session, he said. Usually his eponymous firm, located near London, develops interactive 3D models and visualizations for clients that include Deutsche Bank, Hamptons International, and Eurostar.
An underwater view of the marine solar cells. Credit: Phil Pauley
His design calls for floating dome-shaped solar cells to be linked together in web-like patterns. Wave energy will be captured as the buoyant floats bob up and down in the water, Pauley said. Waves will also act like mirrors to bounce sunlight back on the floating cells and increase solar capture by 20 percent, he estimated. The type of photovoltaics that would cover the domes hasn't been specified yet.
"The wave force will be moving the domes up and down, which in turn will be moving the bars that connect the cell, which will be creating energy 24-7," Pauley said. The plan is for that energy to then go into storage units until it's needed.
Since releasing his design online, Pauley said had interest from universities and companies in developing the technology, and is in discussions with them to determine the best way to do that. He said he hopes a prototype will be ready within the next 12 months.
"It's potentially a new industry," he said.
Floating solar arrays have existed for several years, including Novato, California-based company SPG Solar's "Floatovoltaics" system, which is intended to cover small inland bodies of water such as irrigation ponds and reservoirs. However, combining kinetic wave energy with a photovoltaic system the way Pauley has is novel, said Palo Luckett, president and CEO of the Kauai-based renewable energy project developer Pacific Light and Power Inc.
Luckett, whose company is working on hydro, solar, and biogas projects in Hawaii, notes that locating solar arrays on water has the advantage of avoiding heavy land and site control costs. He cautions that Pauley will need to make sure his system can handle a harsh ocean environment, though.
"Whenever you have a DC current in a marine environment, there's corrosion," he said. Placing expensive high-end materials in buoy-like structures could also be a challenge, creating a bigger financial risk than constructing a basic wave energy system, Luckett said. "If you have a big storm event, a hurricane, or a big swell, suddenly it's not tens of thousands, it's hundreds of thousands [of dollars]."
While marine solar cells might not be able to provide utility-scale electricity, they could be ideal for powering marine vessels or transportation nearby, Luckett said. He added that he hopes Pauley talks with engineering groups about having feasibility work done on the concept.
"He is a beautiful designer," Luckett said. "There is certainly a lot of ocean around available for power generation."