October was a key month for Solar Breakthroughs

It’s almost as if the final few months before the commencement of the crucial COP26 talks created an invisible countdown timer to bring several key solar innovations online. The past three months have proved decisive in brightening the outlook for solar adoption through major efficiency boosts and progress on related challenges such as energy storage. October, in particular, was a month flush with success on multiple solar fronts.

In recent months’ newsletters, we have outlined the general economic realities regarding solar adoption worldwide. Highlighting the size of the opportunity, the speed of global solar capacity expansion, and temporary yet important reverses such as the recent polysilicon price spike[TM1] , these updates have served to explain the wider context of worldwide solar adoption. This month, we dive straight into the recent slew of innovation breakthroughs, before analysing what this means for the global solar industry.

Key solar breakthroughs of recent months

31 August: Dutch start-up Solarge is on the verge of mass-producing lightweight solar panels that may enable a mass upscaling of rooftop solar energy production. Their solar panels work in exactly the same way as regular ones, yet they are around half the weight, since they utilise plastic instead of glass. This makes them ideal for installation on smaller, weaker roofs, with almost any home or office roof providing suitable. Crucially, Solarge claims that its solution emits 80% less CO2. The company expects to have a factory-ready panel ready for mass production in spring 2022.

14 September: The California Institute of Technology (CalTech) announced that it will carry out the first test launch of its planned orbital photovoltaic power generation solution in late 2022 or possibly early 2023. While space-based solar energy harvesting remains nascent, its potential is tantalising, since a workable orbital solar collector would have a 24/7 supply, entirely uninterrupted by weather or day/night cycles.

18 October: Australia-based Woodside Petroleum announced its intention to sidestep the thorny issue of energy storage in solar facilities by creating a facility capable of producing and storing energy without needing batteries. It is partnering with Heliogen (which is backed by Bill Gates’ climate fund) to use its breakthrough solar technology. Heliogen’s solution uses highly advanced, AI-powered software to turn its array of mirrors to a single point, turning sunlight into a zero-carbon source of heat, power and hydrogen production. The joint project envisages a 5MW demonstration facility at first, and a speedy upscaling from there.

28 October: Honeywell announced a new flow battery technology that is compatible with solar and wind energy generation. Its key innovation is the use of a safe, non-flammable electrolyte that allows for energy storage that meets the environmental, longevity and safety requirements of utility-level solar facilities. It can store and discharge electricity for up to 12 hours, which is three times longer than the 4 hours that lithium-ion batteries currently manage. Honeywell claims that it will be able to provide a reliable and cost-efficient system with an asset lifecycle of at least 20 years. The first deployments of this storage solution are slated for early 2022.

29 October: Singapore-based company, Maxeon Solar Technologies just unveiled their ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight solar panels that are thinner than a pencil. Like Solarge’s innovation, the introduction of lighter panels will be critical in unlocking the solar collecting potential of smaller rooftops worldwide. Currently, around 40% of all commercial buildings are not strong enough to safely bear the weight of conventional solar panels. Maxeon predicts that in Europe alone the rooftops of such ‘low-load’ roofs represents up to 4GW of annual solar energy production potential.

Size matters: The Solar Industry considers standardisation prospects

Across all of these innovations, the key factors involved are size, weight and storage. Solar has long been criticised for its shortcomings in scaling up global capacity levels, because of inherent challenges around installation, unpredictability of production over time, and cost-efficient storage. These are all issues that are holding solar back as the premier vehicle for creating a clean, sustainable energy supply for the entire world.

With time running short to hit global climate change targets, the scaling up of solar has never mattered as much as it does now. Accordingly, the solving of issues related to its scalability have never mattered as much either. Now, with new panels that can be mounted on low-load rooftops, ‘battery-less solar facilities’ and the prospect of space-based solar collectors drawing closer, the global scaling up of solar capacity seems set for a turbo-boost in the coming years.

However, while the modular nature of solar solutions is a source of great strength for the industry, it is also a potential weakness. As new solar module sizes and configurations enter the market – made cost-effective and financially viable by innovation breakthroughs – there are concerns that this diversity will drive up costs related to installation, labour, expertise and other operational factors. While no major drive for a thorough standardisation of solar module sizes and formats is being mooted, increasingly we are seeing the industry reduce its mainstream adoption of solar down to a smaller range. This is likely to remain the case for some years, thanks to the dynamic nature of solar breakthroughs that keep pushing the efficiency, sustainability and cost-effectiveness of emerging solutions ever higher.

For now, increased experimentation on solar approaches continues to produce more breakthroughs, and the realisation of even more impressive solar gains just on the horizon.