These new solar panels can configure themselves

Researchers from the Fraunhofer
Institute install novel, flexible solar panels with an adhesive backing and quick-connect cables. Ordinarily,
installing and connecting a new array of rooftop solar panels takes days, weeks, or even months because the hardware

is complex and various permits are
needed. On a frigid day in Charlestown, Massachusetts, researchers completed the process in about an hour!

Homeowners can install the system themselves, by gluing it to a rooftop. The permitting is handled by a combination of electronic sensors and software that

communicates with local jurisdictions and utilities. Installation and permit-related expenses currently account for more than half of the overall cost of a new solar power setup.

“By simplifying the system so that it’s like installing an appliance, we
envision that the soft cost will be virtually eliminated,” says Christian Hoepfner,
director of the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, which
developed the system. Doing so would lower the cost of a typical residential
solar installation from $22,000 to as
little as $7,500, he says.

Solar power can be dangerous if not
installed properly. Heavy components may be blown off a roof if not secured properly, and solar panels can produce potentially deadly voltages if not properly grounded, and every wire protected. The Fraunhofer system uses light, flexible solar panels
encased in durable plastics. The panels can be securely attached to a shingled roof via an adhesive backing that anchors the panels even in winds up to 110 miles per hour. The solar panels use electrical

equipment, developed by the startup
VoltServer, that breaks DC power into
discrete, addressed packets, something like the data packets sent over the Internet. If one of these packets fails to reach its destination—for example, if someone were to touch a damaged wire, the current is instantly cut off, preventing injury—a
feat demonstrated by a brave EnerVolt

employee at the Charlestown demon-
stration when he purposely touched an exposed wire on the new solar installation. The whole system is connected to the grid via a plug similar those used for fast-
charging electric cars, which can handle high voltages safely. Once plugged in, the system performs several tests to ensure it’s safe.

Hoepfner says the software probably does the job more consistently than
inspectors would. Test information would be sent to the local utility for approval over the Web. While all the hardware exists now, and will go on sale soon, the

automated permitting still needs work. Fraunhofer had pre-approved the system with the authorities, who’d had inspected the process ahead of time. Commercial-
isation will require developing new

standards for solar power systems. Homes will also need pre-installed outlets
designed for solar panels, similar to the high voltage dryer connections in new homes.
For now, installing the outlet will require a trained electrician, though it can be done in just a couple of minutes via a device that can be quickly attached to a meter.

Meanwhile, testing is ongoing to make sure the adhesive will keep the solar panels anchored in very hot weather.

Kevin Bullis
The New York Times

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