The 3D Printed Solar Revolution

3D printing is here, it’s neat but most importantly, it’s changing the manufacturing and delivery of goods. And even though the disruption of conventional manufacturing and delivery of goods is exciting because it will have a democratizing effect on our economy, there is an important impact on how solar power adoption is accelerated.

3D printing can produce a great deal of products from the obvious, like toys to the astounding like human organs to the critical solar panels. 3D printing is a fast growing new technology and has changed the way we produce things. The technology has been developed in such innovative ways that it can produce almost anything, from human organs to prosthetic devices to solar cells. Companies have begun printing rolls of solar conductive material. This has dramatically improved the efficiency and availability of solar power. This innovation has been supercharged, however, with the recent integration of 3D printers into the mass market.

solar film

Photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license (click to enlarge)

Currently, 3D printers are become more affordable and more capable than ever before. 20 years ago a 3D printer was typically huge and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Now, there are Kickstarter campaigns for people developing 3D printers that will be available for a few hundred dollars or even cheaper. And this is only the beginning.

Like most technology, it will become better and less expensive as technology continues to be developed. As this happens, it will dramatically increase the availability of solar power from every practical standpoint. If solar panels can be produced in your garage for the cost of materials, eliminating transportation costs, markup, and antiquated technology, there will be an easy equation to stimulate adoption: the panels will be cheaper than a power bill.  

Once this price point happens, the political corruption that has surrounded net metering will no longer matter. People will simply adopt to save the cost of their bills and if the power companies wake up to the benefit of net metering the grid, then the profitability of solar owners will happen fast and create mass incentives for further adoption.

An additional benefit is that people will be able to print more panels to increase their electricity capacity or simply to repair and maintain those their panels. This reduces the need to work with large companies and complicated financing. It also creates the opportunity for micro-grids and local economies.

thin film

Photo courtesy of Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license (click to enlarge)

For example, instead of being completely independent of a grid, neighborhoods could create micro-grids, where they provide each other electricity through printed solar panels, perhaps even a central area of production beyond the rooftops, and share the power to the area. Phone apps can track the energy need, and overflow could be distributed locally instead of returned to the grid with complicated net metering. This allows people to bypass the politics and practices of those not interested in participating with good intentions.

Ultimately, this new form of manufacturing will put the power in the hands of the people who want products, but don’t want to pay a premium for specialty items. This is truly the beginning of an exciting time.