Optimizing Solar Arrays
Gemasolar power-generating array in Seville, Spain. Photo by GeoEye.
One of the drawbacks of solar energy is that it requires a lot of space. Photovoltaic and solar thermal arrays require a large amount of room, and they are not always as efficient as they might be—due to panels shading each other as they move to track the sun throughout the day.
A recent report in The Economist tells of a more effective arrangement, based on biomimicry. Scientists Alexander Mitsos and Corey Noone of the Massachusetts Instititute of Technology developed a computer model to determine the optimal arrangement to decrease shading interference as well as space requirements in concentrated solar plants. The best outcome, it turns out, results from an arrangement called the Fermat spiral, in which each element is rotated at 137 degrees relative to its neighbor. As the researchers realized, this geometry is evident in sunflowers, and saves up to 16 percent more space than the conventional semi-circular array.
This potent example of "performative geometry" suggests that planners and manufacturers of other renewable power systems look to nature for optimal solutions. As The Economist aptly concludes, "there really is nothing new under the sun."