The science behind solar panels might be daunting to the average person, but there’s one thing we probably all know: solar panels need sunlight. So what happens when a solar panel is obscured from the sun? Or a midday shadow is cast on a solar-paneled roof? How can they continue to produce energy?
This issue was the biggest obstacle the solar technology field was facing.
That is, until CHERP came along.
The Community Home Energy Retrofit Project is a nonprofit in Claremont, CA, that is revolutionizing the solar technology industry by combatting the phenomena plaguing solar panels known as hot spots.
CHERP Executive Director, Devon Hartman, says hot spots can develop in a solar panel due to shading, impurities, or even bird droppings. These factors can cause weak cells to be overpowered by stronger cells in a process called reverse bias. This reverse flow of energy causes the solar panel to overheat, creating the detrimental hot spots. These hot spots can make a solar panel lose a third of its power, and degrade it rapidly over time.
Hot spotting also reduces the amount of viable rooftops suited for solar panels to just 30%, limiting the solar industry to the most ideal rooftops in the best conditions. Such rigid requirements posed a huge problem for the mass deployment of renewable energy.
So what’s so special about CHERP’s solar panels?
Hartman explains, “Just before a solar cell enters into a hot spot, it emits a signal of distress. Our technology looks for this signal, and redirects a current throughout the entire panel to prevent any cell from overheating.” These solar panels are much more durable and are able to withstand installation on most parts of any roof. “This technology is not only improving the efficiency and durability of individual panels,” says Hartman, “but it allows us now to use rooftop space that was never before available to us. So the constraint on mass deployment of technology in solar panels has now just been lifted.”
Hartman says these new solar panels are much easier to produce, too. “The technology allows us to remove several components and simplify the architecture of each solar panel, so that now we don’t have to produce solar panels in a lights out billion dollar factory in China. We can actually produce it with volunteer labor in a local factory by citizens in a particular community.”
And if that wasn’t enough, this new technology also allows for the use of less pure solar panels that have been rejected by for profit manufacturers. So solar panels that are considered defective by typical standards are anything but for CHERP.
This game-changing design is all thanks to entrepreneur and inventor, Kent Kernahan. Kernahan has over 70 patents to his name, but it wasn’t until later in his career that he realized he wanted his work to have a more local impact.
For decades, all of his inventions were being monetized overseas and sucking middle class manufacturing jobs out of the United States. He wanted to change that and help revive local economics. As fate would have it, Hartman had a similar epiphany.
“After operating my architecture and construction company for 30 years, I discovered that buildings are the largest contributor to greenhouse gases on the planet,” says Hartman. “Once I discovered this, that we have been designing and building buildings that were very beautiful, high design, but without regard for energy use, that was shocking to me.” This wakeup call lead to a career re-haul for Hartman, who re-evaluated his values just like Kernahan.
He soon learned that retrofitting buildings and renewable energy is the most effective way we can reduce greenhouse gases on the planet. And so, CHERP was born.
CHERP’s ultimate goal is to help cities achieve net zero energy. To execute this objective, they have four main areas of focus: strategic plans, community engagement, building retrofits, and renewable energy.
As part of the renewable energy focus, CHERP teamed up with Kernahan’s company IdealPV, and are embarking on creating the first nonprofit solar panel assembly factory in the world, right in Pomona, CA.
Both Hartman and Kernahan understand the importance of acting locally to create global change. This means prioritizing community engagement and inclusivity. Hartman says that, “Up to this point, in the entire California solar initiative, the lowest income households are being left entirely out of the conversation.”
The current solar deployment model is geared solely towards households with incomes in the top 20%, excluding the rest because it’s assumed that they’re renters, can’t afford it, or don’t have the tax cut incentives. Not to mention lower income communities usually have smaller rooftops that are oriented differently with obstructive pipes, vents, or trees.
These issues are all but eliminated with Kernahan’s new solar panels, making mass deployment of renewable energy possible. Their nonprofit solar panel production factory will capitalize on this potential and extend it even further. “We’re actually going to be hiring and working with intellectually disabled workshops, we’re going to be working with at risk youth,” says Hartman of the nearly 200 new jobs that will be created.
This new solar panel technology sounds great, but does it actually work?
Preliminary tests at Harvey Mudd College respond with an emphatic yes.
In fact, their studies have found that CHERP’s anti-hot-spotting panels produce approximately 24% more power than the conventional variety. These results are incredibly promising for the CHERP team, and give them the positive reinforcement they need to move forward with their nonprofit solar panel assembly factory.
With this innovative new solar technology propelling them forward, the sky’s the limit for CHERP.
Forget shooting for the moon. At CHERP, they’re shooting for the sun.
Also published on Medium.