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A lot has happened in the past decade. Within this short space of time, solar panels have gone from something that we occasionally saw on the news, to becoming a common household appliance, propped up on at least 800,000 UK homes.
The solar industry is always evolving and researchers are constantly coming up with new ways to improve solar panels – it’s hard to keep up!
So, to give you the low-down on all things solar, we’ve gathered together the top news stories from 2020, stats on how Covid-19 has impacted the industry, and research into what the future of solar power looks like.
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Solar panel technology
Whilst most people think of harnessing solar energy as a relatively new concept, it actually dates all the way back to the 1700s.
We’ve laid out a brief timeline of the major solar-energy milestones below:
1767: The world’s first ‘solar collector cell’ was designed and constructed by Swiss scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure
1941: First silicon monocrystalline cell is created
1954: International Solar Energy Society is formed
1963: Mass production of solar cells begins
1973: The first solar building “Solar One” is constructed and runs on a hybrid supply of solar thermal and solar PV power
1985: The University of South Wales achieves 20% efficiency for silicon cells
2012: The world’s cumulative PV electricity capacity surpasses 100 gigawatts (GW)
2015: The Global Solar Council and the International Solar Alliance are formed
2016: First solar plane flight around the world
2017: 4.5 million jobs in the solar energy sector, whilst global PV capacity reaches 400 GW
2019: Solar, together with wind, nuclear, and hydro energy accounts for 48.5% of the UK’s power generation
Energy efficiency in solar panels over the years
Recent developments in solar
Solar energy has a huge history, but a lot of innovation in the field has come about in the past decade. To give you an idea of the growth the industry has seen since 2010, take a look at the charts below.
Data from IEA
Since more investment has been pumped into solar, not only is it becoming increasingly popular for both commercial and residential uses, but panels are also plummeting in price.
Data from IEA
A new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that between 2010-2019, the cost of solar PV globally dropped by 82%.
Data from IRENA
Solar power innovations
There are two primary factors that researchers are aiming to improve in solar tech: the cost and the life cycle.
Although solar panel prices have been falling over the years, they can still be quite costly – and the more efficient your model, the more money you need to pay. However, researchers at the University of Sheffield recently unveiled a new type of solar cell, which is said to cut down on manufacturing costs and increase electrical-conversion efficiency.
Meanwhile, a team of researchers in Oxford have developed a new form of material (called perovskite), which can be overlaid on silicon solar cells. This new technique has demonstrated record efficiency for silicon panels.
Despite their green credentials, the manufacturing process behind solar panels is notoriously harmful for the planet. So far, no truly eco-friendly process has been established for creating solar panels, but a number of recycling schemes for old PV modules have been put in place.
The cradle to cradle (C2C) principles, in particular, have taken off. This is when materials are deconstructed and placed in a constant recycling process.
Another key focus driving solar researchers is how to harness more energy. We’ve listed a few of the creative solar innovations that have taken the world by storm – helping us reach a higher installation capacity.
- Solar thin film – This can be ‘printed’ in rolls, which massively reduces the cost of the panels and the installation, as well as opening up more opportunities for placement on buildings
- Solar windows – Windows with this coating remain see-through, whilst also being able to convert sunlight into energy. The coating of these solar windows produces the world’s smallest functional solar cells. It can be applied at room temperature, with no need for specialised production facilities
- Solar roads – A handful of countries have adopted solar roads to capture more energy, but none have succeeded as much as China, so far. In late 2017, China opened ‘The Jinan Expressway’, spanning 5,875 square meters, and is capable of generating up to 1GWh every year – enough to power 800 homes
- Solar EV charging points – Nowadays, if you’ve got a solar power system at your home, you can not only power your house for free, but run your car as well. It’s more convenient than charging your electric vehicle on the street, and it’s cheaper too
- Transparent, flexible solar cells – Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have invented transparent and flexible graphene-based solar cells. These cells can be mounted on different surfaces such as glass, plastic, tape, and even paper
- Floating solar farms – French company Ciel & Terre International has been producing floating solar systems since 2011. These floating farms can be installed on quarry lakes, drinking water reservoirs, tailing ponds, irrigation canals, and hydroelectric dam reservoirs. It’s also a simple and affordable alternative to ground-mounted solar systems
Solar panel news
It’s impossible to keep up with all the latest news in a constantly evolving industry. So, to make sure you’re up to date with the major solar news that you might have missed in 2020, here’s our roundup:
- To kick start the year, we learned that wind, solar, and hydro together generated 26.5% of Britain’s electricity in 2019. According to the National Grid, this contributed towards a total of 48.5% of power from zero-carbon sources when added to nuclear and imports from interconnectors
- In January, the Smart Export Guarantee came into force – where suppliers with over 150,000 domestic customers were required to launch an export tariff. Pricing ranged wildly, from Social Energy's 5.6p per kWh, to the barely compliant 0.001p per kWh that Shell Energy is offering
- In April, solar in the UK reached a peak of 9.68GW – breaking the all-time peak generation record and meeting almost 30% of UK electricity demand
- In June, Great Britain smashed its coal-free generation record. The record was made possible by a combination of high levels of solar on the grid and lower than usual demand
- In June, Cleve Hill Solar Park, set to be the largest in the UK, was granted development consent by the energy secretary. The colossal 350MW project will include 880,000 panels along with battery storage
- In June, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that between 2010-2019, the cost of solar PV globally dropped by 82%
- In June, Community Energy England (CEE) launched its Community Energy 2030 Vision. The vision outlines plans to grow community energy so that it powers the equivalent of 2.2 million homes by 2030, as well as supporting 8,700 jobs. This growth would save 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and add over £1.8 billion to the economy each year
- In June, despite the pandemic, domestic solar PV installations more than doubled, jumping 185% on average compared to May
- In August, The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released data that shows solar, together with wind, hydro, and other renewables, generated 47% of the country’s electricity in the first four months of 2020
- In August, solar generation across Europe jumped 15% in the first six months of the year, reaching 68TWh, an increase largely due to the connection of larger solar farms
- In July, Transport for London (TfL) announced it had taken the first step towards sourcing all the Underground’s electricity from renewable energy
- In August, research from EffectiveHome.co.ukfound that installing solar PV can increase house prices by an average of £32,459 across the UK
- In September, the UK Government launched its Green Home Grants scheme, as part of its green road to recovery from Covid-19. The scheme offers financial support for the installation of home improvements – including solar thermal panels
- In October, the IEA outlined how global solar panel installation has the potential to almost triple from today’s levels by 2030, setting new deployment records each year after 2022
How has Covid-19 impacted solar energy?
Opinions on how the Covid-19 crisis will impact the solar industry have been very divided. On the one hand, some experts are concerned the pandemic will stunt investment in the renewable industry, whilst others believe the coronavirus has created a pivotal point that will encourage governments to push for more green energy.
In a webinar held by SolarPower Europe, Aristotelis Chantavas, Head of Europe at Enel Green Power and President of SolarPower Europe, commented:
“The Covid-19 crisis underscores the need to offer sustainable solutions and to accelerate the energy transition towards a decarbonised society, which may require certain measures for the solar sector.”
Covid-19’s negative impact on the solar industry
The world is set to add only 167 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power capacity this year – 13% less than in 2019. This decline in installation is mainly due to supply chain disruptions, lockdown measures, and social distancing guidelines – as well as emerging financing challenges.
The majority of delayed projects are expected to take place in 2021, however, installations of rooftop solar PV for businesses and households may continue to fall without strong government support.
The chart below provides a glimpse into just how much Covid-19 has stunted the growth of solar PV:
Data from IEA
Covid-19’s positive impact on the solar industry
Covid-19 has introduced new opportunities to utilise greater levels of solar energy in the near future.
A number of countries have implemented green ‘road to recovery’ plans, which aim at pushing for more renewable energy in the aftermath of the pandemic. The UK has so far dedicated £3 billion in its recovery plan to cutting carbon and creating green jobs.
Moving forward from the coronavirus, economies are going to suffer. Therefore, governments need to focus on projects with good value-for-money and relatively quick delivery. Both of these factors favour clean-generation technologies, especially in the electricity sector where solar PV and wind are among the cheapest options for new generation and have relatively short investment cycles.
Though the pandemic has put green energy investments on hold for now, we believe this is only a temporary setback. There is only one path the energy sector can take once fossil fuel sources are depleted, and countries that have implemented green recovery plans are taking a step in the right direction.
The future of solar panels
The future of solar panels is looking very bright. We’re fast approaching the end of the finite supply of fossil fuels, so our only option is to move forward with renewable energy. And, in many countries, solar is already leading the way.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, there are few things that need ironing out in the solar industry. Mainly, new designs need to be created to capture more light, transform light energy to electricity more efficiently, and be less expensive to build.
These aren’t necessarily issues that will take a long time to solve. The ability to capture more sunlight, for instance, might be as simple as adding hardware to existing solar cells – allowing the cell to track the sun as it moves across the sky throughout the day.
Higher-efficiency modules – which can generate 1.5 times more solar power than existing, similarly-sized modules – are also becoming more popular in recent years. These solar cells use a technology called ‘tandem silicon cells’ – a new product that is expected to garner a lot of attention in the coming years.
Moving forward, the solar industry has very clear cost-reduction roadmaps, which should see solar costs halving by 2030. Although silicon cells are expected to increase the amount of solar power produced in the US by at least 700% by 2050, this material tends to be quite expensive. Researchers are currently working on production innovations that will reduce the amounts of costly materials, such as silver and silicon, used in the manufacture of solar cells.
Overall, we can expect solar to keep growing in popularity around the globe. According to IRENA, solar PV could account for 25% of total electricity demand by 2050.
Fossil fuel resources, such as crude oil and natural gas, are estimated to die out within the next 50 years. Despite some countries still pushing for these sky-clogging energy sources, the only real, sustainable way for us to move forward is with renewable energy.
Solar energy has the potential to lead us to a better future with cleaner air, more jobs, and less harm to the environment.