Solar Panels Now in Wildfire Detectors, Greenhouses, and Even Reservoirs

April 25, 2023 by Jake Hertz

Solar panels are a common feature of thousands of homes. Now, researchers are adapting the technology to power other environmentally-conscious efforts.

Solar power is now a popular source of renewable energy, with solar panels a common sight on rooftops and in fields around the world. However, the applications of solar power extend far beyond electricity generation for homes and businesses. Recently a number of unique applications for solar power have found their way into the news, sparking excitement about the potential use cases for the technology.


Solar Device Tracks Wildfires

Torch, a startup founded in 2020, recently announced a solar-powered wildfire detection device, Torch Sensor, that can monitor up to 10 acres of land. The device comes equipped with a number of sensors that measure various environmental variables that are indicative of wildfires. These include gas sensors, infrared cameras, and standard cameras to image and survey the land. 


The Torch sensor

The Torch sensor. Image courtesy of Torch


Additionally, the device is solar-powered and capable of IoT communication with other devices in a mesh network, making it possible to add dozens or hundreds of them to a single Wi-Fi gateway. Thanks to the solar-powered nature of the device, it does not require external power or battery changes to operate and can function as a truly standalone device.

The system includes a mobile app that sends instant notifications to users when it detects signs of fire, not just on their property but also in the surrounding areas and communities.


Semi-transparent Solar Panels Enhance Greenhouse Growth

Last month, UCLA researchers used solar panels to promote growth in greenhouses. The team replaced the glass in greenhouses with solar panels to supply electricity to the greenhouse's lighting and water control systems or even the whole farm. The challenge the researchers faced was harnessing this electricity without blocking the light required for plants.


Solar-powered greenhouses

Solar-powered greenhouse. Image courtesy of UCLA


In a paper published about the study in Nature, the researchers describe a method for enhancing semi-transparent organic solar cells by incorporating a layer of L-glutathione, a naturally occurring antioxidant that extends the cells' lifetime and efficiency while allowing sufficient sunlight to reach plants in a greenhouse prototype. With the addition of the L-glutathione, the organic cells maintained over 80% efficiency after continuous use for 1,000 hours, compared to less than 20% without the additive.

In separate demonstrations with a transparent glass roof with inorganic solar cell segments and another roof made entirely of semi-transparent organic solar cells, the crops in the greenhouse with the organic solar roof grew more than those in a regular greenhouse. The UCLA team is now working to establish a startup to further pursue this idea.


"Floatovoltaics" Save and Generate Energy

Another group of researchers from UC Santa Cruz also recently published a paper describing the use of solar panels in reservoirs.


Solar panels in reservoirs.

Solar panels floating in a reservoir


In their study, the researchers explored the idea of wide-scale floating solar panels, also known as "floatovoltaics." These solar panels would theoretically sit in water reservoirs and act as a powerful addition to the hydroelectric power already generated by a reservoir or gather electricity from existing reservoirs. The researchers estimate that covering 30% of the surface area of 115,000 reservoirs globally could produce 9,434 terawatt hours of power each year. This amount of power is twice the energy generated by the entire United States each year and is sufficient to power over 6,200 cities in 124 countries.

Additionally, by shading and reducing evaporation, floating solar panels can also save water. The research estimates that Egypt could generate 66 terawatt hours of electricity while saving over 200 billion gallons of water annually by deploying 100 square miles of floatovoltaics.