When you work at the coal face of the solar industry (get your head 🙃 around that one), it is sometimes interesting to take a step back to see where the market has come from and where it’s headed.
We’ve spent some time taking stock of the solar PV market. Here’s a summary…
The current state of solar energy
Over the last 10 years, the cost of solar PV has fallen dramatically whilst solar cell efficiency has increased by around 25% or so.
When installed at scale under the right conditions, solar is now the lowest cost power generation technology.
For example, in 2017 Saudi Arabia tendered for solar power capacity and the winning bid was to supply power at a rate of 2.34 US cents per kWh. Under optimal conditions and at utility scale, just north of 2 cents per kWh is all solar costs.
Against this backdrop, total installed capacity has grown fast, driven recently by China and Asia Pacific, but with Europe playing its part.
By 2017, 400 GigaWatts of solar PV had been installed worldwide, producing 460TWh of electricity, representing 2% of global power output. 100GW were installed in 2017 alone, compared to less than 5GW in 2007.
The outlook for the solar PV market over the next 10 years
When looking to the future, two resources worth consulting (among others) are
- SolarPower Europe’s Global Market Outlook 2018 – 2022; and
- The International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics (ITRPV).
Moore’s Law for solar
Moore's Law originated in the world of computing around 1970; in its simple form, it states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers, will double every two years.
In solar PV, total installed capacity roughly doubled in the three year period Dec 2014 – Dec 2017.
Looking at the The Global Market Outlook forecasts (High Scenario), there is the expectation that it could double again by Dec 2021.
So double in three years.
Driven overwhelmingly by China, followed by the US and India.
Costs to keep on falling ….
Meanwhile ITRPV expects the ‘lifetime cost’ of installed electricity is expected to fall by around 20% over the next 10 years.
What about developments in the technology itself?
Recent and next generation developments are as follows:
1. Solar cells and panels
- Bifacial panels are the latest thing to hit the solar panel market. Bifacial enables power generation on both sides of the module and promises yield improvements of up to 30%. According to ITRPV, bifacial panels will increase their market share from 10% to a whopping 60% by 2029.
Are these yield enhancements realistic? We’ll cover these in more detail in another blog.
- Panel efficiency. Earlier this year, SunPower produced the first 400W module, with a panel efficiency of 22.6%. This is approaching the ‘theoretical limit’ efficiency of 29.8% for silicon solar panels, and the practical limit of around 26%, as identified by R.M Swanson of SunPower Corp.
- Only this week scientists have discovered why solar cell efficiency degrades from around 20% to 18% during the first few hours of operation. Now all that is needed is a fix…
- Perovskites: an alternative to silicon, these are supposed to offer the potential to be 33% more efficient than silicon solar cells, without increasing production costs. Thus leading to a further reduction in the lifetime cost per kWh.
Getting techy now…
- Monocrystalline panels are fast gaining market share. In 2018, 50% of installed panels were monocrystalline. In 10 years around 90% are expected to be monocrystalline. Most of these will be PERC (Passivated Emitter Rear Cell), with traditional Al BSF (Aluminium Back Surface Field) all but disappearing.
- In general there is a move away from p-type silicon to n-type silicon, with n-type making up more than 40% of the market by 2029 (currently n-type only accounts for 5%): more on the differences between these another day.
Finally there are some developments in aesthetics: Whilst Tesla is working on its solar tiles, Boston based Sistine Solar allows solar panels to be customised to blend in with the roof without impacting panel efficiency or production.
2. Hydrogen from solar panels
In March 2019, scientists in Belgium announced that they have created a solar panel that uses sunlight to make hydrogen from the moisture in the air. This can then be stored and used for heating. If the technology can be successfully commercialised, it will be a game changer in reducing fossil fuel consumption for residential and commercial heating.
3. Floating solar
By 2029, 10% of new solar plants are expected to be floating on water… like this 6.4MW system on the QE2 reservoir in Surrey.
4. Solar powered roads
The first solar powered roads have been built with more expected to follow:
- In Normandy, France, the first solar road (“Wattway”) was opened in December 2016.
- In China a 2km highway has been built to generate solar electricity and remotely charge electric cars as they are being driven.
5. Battery storage – bridging the demand / supply gap
Of course in parallel with all of the developments in solar technology, major efforts are going into the development of storage, to smooth the peaks and troughs of renewable output.
What about the UK?
Last week in the UK, utility scale solar PV produced 1.8GW of electricity (6.4% of total demand), with wind contributing a further 6GW (21.4%); thus around 28% of electricity demand was met by renewables.
Not bad progress from a virtually standing start less than a decade ago, but the untapped potential is huge.
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