On the topic of solar power, Dan Frisbie shared research being done to lower the cost of solar cells by incorporating plastics. "Making efficient plastic solar cells -- flexible, cheap solar cells -- is going to require many advances in materials technology," said Frisbie, who directs the graduate program in materials science and engineering at the University of Minnesota.
The research revolves around organic semiconductors, and with respect to photovoltaics, "the idea is that you could use methods of coating to make solar cells over large areas on flexible substrates at low costs," Frisbie said. For example, a semitransparent solar film might be adhered to the windows of a bus, or a tent might be constructed of fabric with integrated solar cells. The technology exists today, but it needs to be refined to produce more efficient solar cells and become commercially viable, Frisbie said.
Also seeking commercial viability is Gerardo Ruiz, founder of freEner-g, a start-up that offers solar electricity leasing plans. In its business model, freEner-g designs a solar system for a home or small business and then installs, maintains and supports it for the duration of a customer's lease. Customers don't have to spend a lot of upfront cash to buy and install solar arrays, which makes solar power more feasible for consumers, Ruiz said.
Similar solar leasing projects are being tested in California and Connecticut, Ruiz said. "It is very exciting for us to be able to try that here in the Midwest, too," he said. "I think ultimately there is great potential for a brand to emerge, one that gets equated in people's minds with solar for the home, delivered as a service."