Heliotube: Photo source: Practical InstrumentsSilicon solar cells are a pretty established technology. The panels have become more or less standardized to a regular form factor so that installers can use the same mounting hardware regardless of whose panels are being used. Big corporations like Wal-Mart and Google are readying large installations of panels that will produce enough electricity to rival a small power plant. Manufacturers are developing the technology, and new models of solar panels regularly outperform their older cousins by squeezing out a few more watts per square foot.
The silicon portion is still the most expensive portion of the photovoltaic (PV) solar panel, however. So a new solar panel that uses 88% less PV material than traditional panels could help cut the cost of going solar.
"Silicon solar cells are the most expensive part of today's solar panels. Heliotube substitutes much of the costly photovoltaic material with inexpensive optics to focus the equivalent light onto small solar cells."
The new Heliotube panels introduced by Practical Instruments use sun-tracking reflective troughs to concentrate sunlight onto the PV material. Large scale solar concentrators have been developed for industrial and commercial power generation uses, but the Heliotube panels are sized to fit in standard solar panel arrays (60" x 42"), so they can be installed like typical solar cells.
There is more hardware associated with these panels (in order to do the solar tracking) and a small amount of power is lost to operate the solar tracking. Because there are moving parts, these panels will necessarily be more susceptible to breakdown than typical flat panels. But with cost and material savings, these panels could help make it more affordable for small installations to go solar.