Black Box

In a stairwell of the Ontario Hydro Technologies research building at Kipling and Bloor Avenues in Toronto, there is a small black box mounted on a wall that Per Drewes talks about as if it were alive.

He tells me how it goes to sleep, and when it wakes up, and how it looks at the world outside, and the way it thinks, and by the time he is finished it’s clear that this little black box is a key to unleashing what Drewes calls the « magic’’ of solar power. Before long, it could begin changing the way Ontario Hydro collects and delivers electricity.

Drewes’ title with Hydro is senior engineer-alternate energy, and the little black box is the result of his collaboration with Richard Chung, a professor of electrical engineering at Ryerson Polytechnic University.

The black box will allow solar power users to hook into the Hydro grid, and that means people won’t need to install monster batteries in their basements to store electricity. In effect, Hydro will become the battery for everyone, thus removing a major impediment for people wanting to install solar power.

The box will allow them to sell power to Hydro when they are generating too much to use, and to buy power from Hydro when they’re not generating enough power to meet their needs.

The three main functions of the box will be to make sure that power fed into the grid is the same quality as what Hydro delivers — « so your fridge doesn’t burn out and your computer will work’’ — to shut down the solar collectors if there is a Hydro failure — so linemen repairing Hydro lines won’t get zapped by solar generated electricity — and ‘’to suck out as much current from the panels as possible’’ by programming it to respond to every change in weather, cloud formation, temperature, and light.

Aside from batteries, the other big problem with solar panels has been their ugliness. We’re accustomed to seeing them squatting on rooftops like misplaced tombstones. Now that, too, is changing — but to understand why we have tombstones, I have to tell you a bit about how solar power works.

The trick is to make panels with a material whose atoms want to trade electrons, but need energy from the sun to help the electrons break free. If you do that, and then run a wire from a layer of atoms wanting to release electrons to a layer wanting to attract them — you get an electric current through the wire when you put a panel in the sun.

So far, silicon has been the best material to use. One layer is treated with phosphorous to make it want to release electrons; the other layer is treated with boron to make it want to attract electrons.

The result is an electricity generator with no moving parts and no upkeep that can probably outlive most of the people reading this column.

Up to now, however, the problem has been that the silicon-based wafers used in solar panels are rigid, thin, and brittle. So they have to be protected between plates of shatterproof glass, and that makes panels cumbersome, heavy, and ugly.

What’s new is that ways are being found to incorporate the silicon magic in construction materials that are light, flexible, sturdy, and even transparent. For instance, coming on the market are solar shingles that you can nail to a roof just like regular shingles, solar windows you can see through, and solar cladding for buildings that mimics roof tiles or can replace granite sheathing on walls.

This means that the cost of installing solar panels is coming down. Installed separately, the electricity they produce works out to about 30 cents a kilowatt hour, compared to Hydro’s charge of 8 cents. However when they replace shingles, or granite blocks –and when there are no batteries to buy — their net cost plummets.

What’s more, Hydro is developing a solar material that will be super-flexible and light, and less than half the cost of existing panels.

All of which makes Drewes effervesce. « This stuff is fun to work with,’’ and he holds up a silicon wafer. « It’s magic. You point it at the sun and you get energy.’’ He may be grizzled after 25 years with Hydro, but his enthusiasm is catching.

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