A Minnesota couple’s idea that could keep solar panels clear of snow is getting increasingly popular. The innovative proposal also recently received a $50,000 federal innovation prize from a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) solar manufacturing contest.
Solar panels don’t typically work well if they are covered even partially by snow. The snow doesn’t always slide off the panels due to the tilt of the panels. Most solar panel owners need to climb on roofs or devote staff time to removing snow. Karl Wagner and Danielle Rhodes observed snow build-up on the solar panels of their Duluth home last year, which also cost them three days of production. Commercial installations around town were also encrusted with snow for days. Wagner, a data scientist, incorporated into solar panels a heating material with nanotechnology components. The development is a potential solution.
The couple submitted a proposal, “Solar For Snow,” which recently won the semi-finalist spot for the American-Made Solar Prize. They also received $50,000 in prize money. Wagner and Rhodes believe that the heat application could remove snow from solar arrays in some hours. The Solar for Snow team received equipment and mentoring support from a Canadian-based solar manufacturer, Heliene that has a factory in Minnesota. Minnesota Power, the utility that serves the northern part of the state, also supported the project.
Though the panels could cost more and create installation challenges due to the need for a connection to receive low voltage electricity to activate the nano-material, Wagner wants to continue to try to drop the production cost and to simplify the electrical work required of installers.
The inspiration for heated panels came to Wagner at an energy design expo in Duluth last year. Here, he met with representatives of a St. Louis-based company that manufactures low-voltage radiant heat for flooring, roofs, and more. Monica Irgens, president of Electro Plastics, which produces StepHeat (the company that makes the radiant heating product), stated that they had been working with companies to find solutions for melting snow on solar panels.
Rhodes explained that nanotechnology that relies on a meagre amount of energy to produce a lot of heat was revolutionary. He explained that the technology could detect and heat only areas of panels coated by snow. The nature of the material is such that it just knows what to do. At first, the couple tested panels with an inch of snow that on heating, created small snow avalanches, cleaning panels. They will test with higher snow levels in the future.