2021 is already riding a wave of new solar innovations

While COVID-19 dominated news headlines and government policy for most of 2020, last year was also a landmark year for renewables. With many global economies poised to bounce back, governments are looking more closely than ever at how to make such a recovery as green as possible. Solar has a key role to play, with record-low prices and timely new innovations causing confidence to surge in its backers.

Solar adoption is speeding up, while prices continue to fall

Last year the International Energy Agency crowned solar the cheapest method of power generation in the world, with locations featuring the best infrastructure and policies generate solar electricity at costs below $20 per MWh. The Middle East has been leading the pack on solar adoption and continually chasing the lowest possible production costs for its production by making the most of its natural advantages in this field.

Consistently proving its ability to outperform fossil fuels on produced energy costs is a crucial enabler for solar, and continues to spur investment. However, faster adoption of solar – especially in regional leaders like the UAE – is also due in large part to generous government support. This month saw the launch of Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park’s MEA Energy Innovation Hub, with significant support from the UAE’s Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure. The hub has been designed as a magnet for attracting, developing and then launching new technologies involved in renewable energy.

The collaborative nature of the hub, with its particular emphasis on knowledge transfer, specialised training programmes and innovation-based competitions with a global audience, speaks volumes about how the UAE sees the future of renewables. In the long-term, it sees itself as leading the region – and perhaps the world – as a foremost incubator of innovation, talent and knowledge regarding renewables – expertise which it can export in the fullness of time, along with its own solar-produced electricity.

This is just the latest in a long and continuing line of similar announcements from the UAE and wider MENA region in direct support of national strategies designed to speed up the adoption of renewables, solar in particular. With the political impetus to expand renewable targets and delivered capacity picking up, this prevailing attitude of late 2020 is already asserting itself in 2021 in an exciting and encouraging manner.

A breakdown of solar innovations in recent months

September 2020: The LICROX project begins. The aim of the project is to develop a new type of photoelectrochemical cell that can mimic the process of photosynthesis, where light is converted into chemical energy in plants. This project should be completed by August 2023 and could create a new scalable renewable energy technology.

October 2020: A University of York team created a prototype for a “checkerboard” or “puzzle” style design of solar panel that is reputedly 125% more efficient at absorbing light energy than traditional flat panels.

November 2020: The UK Space Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy began funding research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems – essentially very large solar-powered satellites that collect solar energy, convert it into high-frequency radio waves, and safely beam it back to Earth to be injected into the electricity grid. The launch of a functioning SBSP is predicted for 2050.

March 2021: CITCEA, a technology transfer centre within Spain’s Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) developed a new device capable of managing surplus power in PV installations, making consumption and injection of surplus solar power into the network more efficient.

March 2021: Energy distribution firm Tata Power launched a first-of-its-kind peer-to-peer solar energy trading project in Delhi. The pilot project will run until June 2021 and uses a blockchain-enabled platform for trading electricity produced from over 2MW of solar PV. This is a landmark innovation and a practical demonstration of how solar producers can sell their excess energy directly to consumers. 

The bigger picture for solar power

Individually, the announcement of new innovations for improving the collection, transportation, storage and delivery of solar power are exciting milestones. However, taken together against a backdrop of wider investor enthusiasm from both the public and private spheres, they become something more than the sum of their parts.

2020 was unique to modern history in its effect of shunting governments and private enterprises away from the fallacy that a ‘business as usual’ approach would be enough to stave off the worst consequences of a global catastrophe. In the wake of COVID-19, growing concerns about similarly catastrophic events caused by climate change are prompting a more vigorous approach to the adoption of renewables. This can be seen in the wave of new zero-carbon targets announced worldwide last year, and the subsequent race to see who will become the world’s market leaders for produced renewable energy and expertise.