Solar breakthroughs are the backbone of the Middle East’s renewable future

As summer turns to autumn, 2022 is proving to be a critical year for the innovation and adoption potential of solar power. Nowhere is the prospect of accelerating solar capacity felt more keenly than in the Middle East, where each nation looks to harness the power of another natural resource in great abundance here, sunshine.

August proved to be an extremely exciting month for the ramping up of solar solutions both within the Middle East and beyond it. We take a look at some of the key breakthrough areas that are affecting both the flexibility and scalability of solar solutions.

EVs – The Road to Solar Success

With combustion engines being banned, phased out and generally made a thing of the past, the day will soon dawn when electric vehicles are the status quo of automobiles. However, despite having political backing from Europe to the UAE, EV adoption rates are being hampered by the lack of charging infrastructure and the general slow pace of efficiency gains in EV battery technology.

Enter Lightyear 0, the world’s first long-range production-ready solar electric vehicle. Produced by Dutch startup Lightyear, it can travel up to 70km powered solely by small solar panels embedded in its roof and bonnet. This means that it can be driven for weeks or even months before it needs to be recharged via a mains socket – the panels recharge the car’s battery while it’s in motion or parked outside.

For most Middle Eastern countries, with their clear skies and abundant sunshine, this format of EV is a perfect match. With leading Middle East economies focusing on the reduction of per capita emissions rates, the switch to rooftop panelled EVs will be a gamechanger.

Demonstrating the suitability of this match, Lightyear recently selected Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park (SRTI) to open its new testing facilities and a sales office. Not only does this demonstrate the Middle East’s potential as an EV market hotspot, the Lightyear/SRTI partnership is determined to encourage EV-based university research programmes and work with government policymakers to creating incentives for EV ownership and infrastructure development.

Solar facades – The future of Sustainable Architecture

Installing solar panels onto rooftops of homes and commercial buildings is nothing new. In fact, rooftop solar installations may reach a combined global capacity of 773.7 GW by 2030. However, the realisation of full solar facades is an innovation that is just starting to unlock a whole new level of building-based solar capacity. In Melbourne, Australia, the design studio Kennon is building a new eight-story office which features a north facade with nearly 1200 solar panels embedded in it.

The advantage of embedding solar panels in this manner is that it is a much more modular approach than simply laying out industry-standard solar panels horizontally on a rooftop, or affixing them vertically to the side of the building. Kennon estimates that their embedded approach will generate 50 times more solar energy than a standard rooftop system, providing them with a generation capacity of 142kWp (kilowatt peak) once the building is complete in 2024. This is significantly more energy than the building will require, with the excess being fed back to the grid. It will also save around 70 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

Like embedded solar panel EVs, the embedded solar façade approach is almost tailor-made for Middle Eastern cities. The reliable sunshine, and the need to reduce the emissions of some of the world’s most ‘per capita’ polluting cities, means that we can expect to see more solar facades springing up across major cities globally.

3D Printed Solar Cells – Moving beyond standard solar settings

When it comes to scale, the industry standard silicon solar panel is currently king. The world’s biggest solar energy generating facilities rely on linking rank upon rank of these panels in vast open settings to optimise their overall collection capacity.

While this kind of setup is essential, and workable, new approaches are becoming available as the world ramps up its solar capacity. We’ve already mentioned rooftop PV and embedded solar cars and facades, but the advent of 3D printing may hold the key to placing solar energy producers pretty much everywhere!

In 2018, Professor Paul Dastoor and his research team from the University of Newcastle released their workable version of lightweight, recyclable, inexpensive solar panels they had produced via 3D printing. Crucially, they are composed of 99% PET, a plastic film with a light transmittance of about 85%. Today, 3D printed cells are being given a whole new level of credit and attention after the massive 300% silicon price spikes of late 2021. Not only are PET 3D printed solar cells cheaper to produce, their versatility means that they can be affixed to practically any surface. From streetlights to yacht sails, the future of solar deployments may be a lot freer and wider than we think.

Robot arms build massive farms – Terawatt solar facilities a near-reality

Scale, scale, scale – with solar, it always comes back to scale.

Every month, we remind you that speed is of the essence when it comes to the global transition towards a renewable energy future. To achieve speedier adoption of solar, innovation must be paired with upscaling.

This is the mentality behind Terabase Energy’s plan to build "terawatt scale" solar farms using robots. The firm plans to build a wholly automated factory that uses a highly sophisticated network of robotic arms to lift and attach solar panels to sun tracker modules. This approach means that the factory can run continuously, constantly lifting, fixing and manoeuvring solar panels into place to quickly build solar farms at the terawatt (1,000GW) level.

In its most recent funding round, Terabase picked up $52 million, much of it coming from the Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures. With the likes of Bill Gates involved, it’s clear to see that Terabase’s vision holds promise.

Together, the innovations, upscaling and increasing modularity of solar energy solutions are paving the way for faster solar adoption in the Middle East. From everything we’ve seen and reported on so far this year, this is a trend that is likely to strengthen well into 2023 and beyond.