We’ve come a long way with solar. From the days when detractors bewailed that it would never work and never reach the energy efficiency levels we need to the present where it’s often difficult to walk down a street and not see panels somewhere, there’s no doubt the road has often been a little rocky.
In more recent times, costs have plummeted and the International Energy Agency has suggested that, over the next 30 years, solar could easily become the largest source of electricity around the globe:
“The two IEA technology roadmaps show how solar photovoltaic (PV) systems could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050 while solar thermal electricity (STE) from concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could provide an additional 11%.”
At the end of 2016, we had about 302 GW of capacity installed across the globe and the potential to add a lot more. China have become the market leaders – they currently have over 78,000 MW, having installed 34,540 MW in 2016 alone. If we’re to reach the heady heights that the IEA suggests by 1950, however, a number of factors are going to need to come into play.
It’s expected that, if solar PV and solar thermal are to increase, we need to invest some $225 billion annually to develop new farms and encourage installations on rooftops and offices. This is going to be much easier for some countries than others. China, for example, has plenty of open space and the right policies in place to drive huge amounts of growth for solar farm development. The USA has the space but maybe not quite the right policies with the current government. The good news is that the cost of solar PV is coming down even more and it’s producing cheaper electricity than most fossil fuels.
Storage is Key
We keep saying it at the Renewable Energy Hub but energy storage for solar is a huge game changer. The detractors for solar PV have always pointed to the intermittency of the energy production. If battery storage, both on the home and industrial scale, is developed as we expect over the next decade, you can be certain that renewables of all types will be given a big boost. It may be the reason why many investors are now putting their money into different enterprises and why the UK government recently announced that it was setting aside £246 million for research and development.
Solar PV Technology
Another major factor is the efficiency of solar PV cells and how we can make them better. This is how much of the sun that hits solar cells can be converted to electricity. Most domestic panels deliver something between 10 and 20% and the cost goes up the more efficient they are. This is also compounded by the amount of sunlight that is available in the location where the array is installed and the direction your roof points in.
That’s why we generally need quite large panels to capture the suns energy. If Solar PV was developed to deliver 100% efficiency, we’d need only small ones to create all the energy we need. The record so far has been set by a university in South Australia that created a solar cell with 43% efficiency. The truth is that we’re not likely to get much above 20% for commercial panels, if that, at least not in the short term.
What may be more interesting is the cells we are creating which are no thicker than a sheet of paper that will revolutionise how we install panels. They may even switch from the rooftops to the windows, particularly for locations such as office blocks.
The Renewables Mix
Another thing that is likely to change is how we combine different renewable and low carbon technologies in the future. Businesses are already offering the chance to optimise homes by installing a mix of solar along with heating systems such as air or ground source heat pumps.
There’s no doubt that countries will have their own renewable mix for delivering energy to communities and that will depend a lot on resources, size and infrastructure. How these all work together to deliver on energy needs is one of the challenges that governments, local authorities and utility companies face in the near future. Companies such Eon are already moving into the area of solar installations in the UK, for example, and you can expect others to follow if this is successful.
Finally, the old gripes about solar seem to have all but disappeared. It’s too inefficient? Recent developments have shown that no longer to be true. It’s too costly? The prices have plummeted in the last five years. The future for solar looks bright, though there are obviously some more hurdles to overcome, particularly in locations such as the UK where government policy has been a little indifferent to say the least over the last three years.
Find out about solar PV on our main site.