Solar Investment and Innovation outpaces supply problems

Exciting times are ahead for the solar industry, as crucial innovations are being paired with ramped-up investment. This month, we take a look at the most important trends that are causing the reinvigoration of the market.

Following the money – Boosted Solar investment plans

A recurring theme this month is how money talks, especially when it comes to bringing in industry-level changes. Across critical sustainability sectors, the rising pressures of climate change are being met with increasing investment in sustainability solutions. As always, clean energy is at the forefront of this trend, as this is where the biggest CO2 emissions cuts can be made in the shortest time.

On 25th September, a high-level UN summit resulted in a $400 billion pledge by over 35 national governments, and leading private sector firms, to expand electricity access worldwide, but in a sustainable manner. The companies involved include TotalEnergies, Schneider Electric and Google.

Tangible solutions and specific projects attached to the pledge include the proliferation of ‘swarm grids’, systems of power cubes powered by solar arrays. The overall aim of the programme is to half the number of people worldwide without access to electricity by 2025, with universal energy access by 2030, with renewables providing most of this added capacity.

New thinking for solar solutions

New money goes hand-in-hand with new thinking. This is particularly the case for an industry as globally impactive as solar energy. Last month, we talked about the stumbling block for the global solar industry, thanks in large part to the price spike in polysilicon. While this is still a factor that’s dampening solar enthusiasm, it has also served as a catalyst for innovators to find alternative solutions to make solar panels and other key components cheaper overall. 

The following is a brief overview of some of the most influential developments in solar innovation this month:

SunDrive successfully creates copper conductor solar cells: Australian solar company SunDrive has grown from a garage project to the creator of an industry-changing solar solution. It has managed to successfully replace silver with copper as the conductive element in its solar panels. Since silver is around 100 times more expensive than copper, this makes them far cheaper. SunDrive’s panels have also broken the world record for (commercially-sized) silicon solar cell efficiency, hitting a rate of 25.54%, breaking the previous record of 25.26%.

Cornell-led lab team use machine learning to lower solar panel costs: A three-year project, led by Cornell University and backed by the US Department of Energy, aims to use machine learning to successfully solve the problems of growing perovskites that will have optimal performance in solar devices. Perovskites are crystal structures that can efficiently convert light into electricity but are still unstable and hard to reliably produce at a commercial level. Machine learning is essential for the process of testing millions of combinations of potential compositions and processing routes to crack the main problems associated with this high-potential solar application. 

‘Floatovoltaics’, scaled up: Floating solar panel systems – or floatovoltaics – are not a new innovation. However, the ongoing debate as to whether floating systems can compete economically with ground-based ones is being put to the test in India in a big way. The Jharkhand State Government has approved the construction of a 100MW floating solar plant in Getalsud dam, while also commissioning a further 260MW of floatovoltaic projects. While the CAPEX (capital expenditure) costs of floating solar systems are generally higher than ground-based ones – due to the need to use materials with high corrosion resistance levels – its proponents estimate that they generate a 5-7% higher lifetime yield. This is because the natural cooling effect of being placed on water results in decreased temperatures and higher efficiency. This, along with the obvious advantage of not needing any land space, is causing a floatovoltaic investment rush in India. In turn, this is being watched with interest by other countries looking to scale up their solar capacity without encroaching on valuable land.

Masdar follows suit on large-scale floatovoltaic system: Abu Dhabi’s Masdar has begun construction this month on Cirata Floating Photovoltaic Power Plant project, a 145MW project that will be the biggest floatovoltaic deployment in Southeast Asia, and the first of its kind in Indonesia. When it’s finished, it will generate enough clean energy to power 50,000 homes, offsetting 214,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in the process.

Ramping up solar to meet a shortening timeline

As predicted by both economists and solar industry experts, the short-term issues of spiking silicon costs and various logistical issues associated with the pandemic have not stopped the solar industry from attracting new investment at a consistently high level and with acceleration speed. As the renewable energy source with the greatest potential for scalability, solar is increasingly being viewed as the most cost-effective method of enabling nations to hit their energy mix transition targets. This goes double for the Middle East, with its ideal solar conditions, proven track record of delivered projects, and world-leading solar expertise hubs.

As COP26 approaches, expect to see more large-scale solar deployments announced. With new innovations boosting the cost-effectiveness of such deployments, and time running short, the scaling up of solar ambition and implementation seems all but inevitable at this point.