Solar poised for gamechanging year in 2022

Despite setbacks such as the pandemic and polysilicon price hikes, solar is in a stronger position than ever at the end of 2021, and is set to make even more expansive gains next year.

2021 was a landmark year for solar

Earlier in the year, we reported on the factors that led to a short-term dip in confidence in the future development of solar globally. With 2021 nearly over, those concerns have clearly not been enough to subdue the current appetite or future plans for solar expansion. This is because the underlaying economic and ecological mathematics involved haven’t changed. Clean energy transitioning is still the fastest avenue for decarbonising the planet, solar cost are still rapidly falling overall, even as technology advances boost the efficiency of solar solutions.

This assessment is borne out by the overall growth of installed solar capacity, as another 290GW was added globally in 2021, making it another record-breaking year. Equally importantly, solar is the dominant force in future power generation plans. While oil and coal-fired power plants are being phased out, renewables will account for about 95% global power-generation capacity from now to the end of 2026, and half of this total will be down to solar alone. By all accounts, the 2020s are solar’s time to shine.

Exponential growth of solar seems increasingly likely

To put the current solar growth situation in perspective, solar and wind combined only made up 1.7% of global energy generation in 2010. A decade later, that figure had shot up to 8.7% – more than a fivefold increase. Spurring this on, costs associated with producing photovoltaic electricity have fallen by over 85% during the same period, causing positive feedback loops, where cheaper costs fuel faster and more ambitious solar deployments.

Looking ahead, if the world is going to successfully hit its global decarbonization target and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, then renewables will need to account for at least 55%of all produced energy. Solar will have to bear the majority of this load. While an increase from 8.7% to 55% in the current decade would be another six to seven-fold jump, the exponential growth rate of solar means that this outcome is by no means unachievable. Moreover, this is perhaps one of the brightest glimmers of hope for a lasting global solution to the clear and present threat of climate change.

Big solar plans in the Middle East

The Middle East has long been positioned to benefit more from the rising proportion of solar into the global energy mix. Going into 2022, the region still aims to be more than a strong solar producer; it also wants to be both a hub for, and exporter of, solar expertise, innovation and supporting solutions.

This can be seen in the recent opening in Tabuk Industrial City, Saudi Arabia of the region’s largest factory for solar panels production. Costing over $186 million, this is a cutting-edge facility that uses the latest in automation technologies to produce solar panels more sustainably and cost-effectively than ever. The choice of location is no coincidence either, as it is well suited to supplying NEOM with the innumerable solar panels that the megacity project will ultimately need.

Energy storage solutions (ESS) are another crucial piece of the solar puzzle. The region has 30 major energy storage projects planned for between 2021 and 2025, in response to the pressing need to scaling up renewable capacity. This can only be done in a reliable manner if effective ESS is incorporated into the deployment timetable. While pumped hydro storage (PHS) and electrochemical energy storage – mainly sodium-sulphur and lithium-ion batteries – are among the chief ESS currently use, other emerging solutions may quickly find prominence within this mix. 

This month, a PHD Student in the in the PhotoCatalytic Synthesis Group, Kaijian Zhu, caught the industry’s eye with his work on new type of photoelectrochemical cell that can both capture and store the energy from sunlight. The focus of his work is on charge transfer dynamics inside the photocathode of such cells. If successful, Zhu’s work may prove critical in boosting ESS efficiency across the industry.

As well as the growth of major solar facilities in the Middle East, the acceleration of solar technologies’ presence in homes and offices is also key to boosting the region’s overall clean energy capacity. Last month saw the second Solar Decathlon Middle East (SDME) take place in Dubai, and innovative solar solutions were an integral part of a net-zero energy home design from Team ESTEEM, of Heriot-Watt University in the UK and Heriot-Watt University in Dubai.

Sunny forecasts for the future of solar

While the key problems of 2021 for the solar industry are still present, namely high material prices and the ongoing pandemic, the push factors appear to be more than sufficient to overcome such obstacles when it comes to the grand strategic view of the global clean energy transition. This is particularly true of the Middle East, where diversification away from hydrocarbon-based wealth and influence makes solar the natural successor to oil, given the abundance of sunlight and suitable solar-producing conditions in the region. 

Looking towards 2022, an acceleration of solar is not just the stated political agenda of the day, it is also an environmental and socio-economic necessity.