Innovation and investment – The twin engine driving the global energy transition

As we hit the mid-point of 2022, a crucial year for global clean energy efforts, it’s time to review the state of solar. As the most easily scalable renewable energy source, solar continues to dominate headlines with new innovations continuously coming out and new investments pouring in.

Innovation roundup – Pushing new frontiers in solar development

Solar cell efficiency tops 26.5%: Germany’s Institute for Solar Energy Research Hamelin confirmed this month its assessment of Chinese PV module maker Longi’s new n-type heterojunction solar cell and its power conversion efficiency of 26.5%. This is the latest in a long line of creeping breakthroughs for Longi, who managed a 25.47% rate in March 2022 for its p-type cell. Not only is this a landmark efficiency rate achievement, it’s doubly important to global solar adoption rates, as Longi supplies more than 30GW of solar wafers and modules across the globe yearly, accounting for around a quarter of global market demand.

Cosmic’s Carbon-neutral ‘Tiny Homes’: US startup Cosmic has produced a new form of ultra-efficient accommodation that they claim is entirely carbon neutral. Measuring only 350 square feet, the Tiny Home relies on its small size and smart features to maximise its energy efficiency. The standard frame includes built-in solar panels and Lithium-ion batteries to store excess energy.

China’s solar space plant is ahead of schedule: China aimed to have its 1MW test facility up and running in space by 2030. However, the most recent estimates from the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration in Southwestern China is that 2028 is a more likely delivery time. If successful, this facility will be an invaluable proof-of-concept for space-borne solar power plants. Without cloud cover to worry about, such facilities can rely on a constant and inexhaustible supply of solar energy.

Solar panels that work at night: One of solar’s main points of contention made by its detractors is the inconsistency of operations, which are interrupted by cloud and nightfall. However, a research team from the school of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW Sydney and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Exciton Science have successfully tested a thermo-radiative diode to create electricity from infrared heat. While the current efficiency rate is a tiny 0.001% of what a solar panel can achieve while under direct sunlight, this breakthrough opens the door to solar panels that can work continuously, harvesting energy day and night.

Solar Investments – Money talks when it comes to future intentions

Saudi Arabia leads the way on solar investment hikes: A new report from Fitch Solutions anticipates a huge leap in solar investments and resultant capacity levels for Saudi Arabia. At the end of 2021, the country had 518MW of installed solar capacity. Between 2022 and 2031, this amount should be multiplied by ten, reaching 5.1GW overall. Fitch believes that green hydrogen will play a decisive role, galvanising the whole solar sector. The Saudi government already awarded solar power contracts worth a combined 1GW in March 2022, and with further ramping up almost inevitable, the country’s solar growth spurt could just be beginning.

UAE announces $160 billion clean energy investments over 30 years: A senior UAE Government minister has confirmed intentions to prioritise the country’s energy security through a $160 billion commitment to clean and renewable energy. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE holds the ambition to become a regional and global leader in green and blue hydrogen production, but solar projects at home and abroad will be the mainstay of initial projects in the near future.

Competition heats up between Solar giants: In previous newsletters, we’ve highlighted the ongoing industry debate regarding the future of standardisation. Further standardisation of existing module sizes on the market is a move thought necessary to reduce development and deployment costs, while boosting the efficiency and supply chain optimisation. For now though, the prospect seems limited and likely to be delayed, as the world’s two major solar module producers – Longi and Trina – are squaring off to dominate the wafer market. Both are campaigning vigorously to influence buyers to believe that their wafer size (182mm for Longi vs 210mm for Trina) is the best. As this tussle continues, it may hasten industry-wide acceptance of a preferred ‘standard wafer size’, potentially driving down solar adoption costs in the long run.

Is the Solar Industry approaching critical mass?

Admittedly, ‘critical mass’ is a term that relates to nuclear energy, but the concept seems increasingly fitting when considering the solar industry. As the global climate crisis deepens, so does the imperative to act quickly. Every month, we are seeing investments in solar rise dramatically, as sustainable finance vehicles gain ground and national budgets are brought to bear. Innovation breakthroughs only encourage this trend, as solar efficiency levels rise and new production methods become attainable. As these two trends chase one another, the overall advancement of the solar industry looks increasingly like it is about to become self-sustaining.