Solar Power – Rise and Shine

Fabian Böck / 1 July 2019 / Read: 6m 35s

Renewable energy policies aim for ambitious targets. The most promising approach comes from solar power technology. Let's see what can be gained from the biggest nuclear reactor around: the sun.

Up and Down and Up

Solar Power has had its ups and downs. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a boom in the solar industry as a result of significant technological improvements, supply issues in the fossil sector, and global warming concerns. This trend was stabilized by authority installing feed-in tariffs, which also fostered the investment climate. Investments rose substantially year by year until 2008. American investors considered clean tech not only to be the greatest investment opportunity of the 21st century but even a "moral imperative".

Then, fairly quick several aspects added up to the burst of the solar bubble. The financial crisis back in 2008 cut the investment volume in half immediately. Moreover, solar technology wasn't matching well enough with regular VC cycles, which go from funding to going public within only a few years. Green tech usually needed more time since it started a company from the supply side and had to build up quite some infrastructure. At that time, natural gas prices have also dropped significantly, which made it way cheaper than solar energy. So, due to falling costs, the green tech supply exceeded demand. A decade ago, this culmination of factors caused rapidly dropping revenues and forced lots of companies to file for bankruptcy—leaving back countless customers as so-called "solar orphans".

"solar power might be the fastest growing industry among renewables due to cost reductions, subsidies, and people's favor for green technology"

After a while, the solar economy has recovered sunbeam by sunbeam—mainly in Europe. This growth then has shifted to Japan and China, the latter being home to the most significant manufacturers on earth. The concentrated solar power economy benefited from this effect as well. Today, solar power might be the fastest growing industry among renewables due to cost reductions, subsidies, and people's favor for green technology. In the end, solar power had its dips but could be considered a stable source for the energy supply mix these days.

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Progress Around the World

China has probably become the most relevant market for solar power. The government is spending billions on renewable technologies, which makes China leading in terms of subsidies. The next challenge for China will be where to install all these solar power plants because China considers itself overcrowded already. So, China, seeking new ways for utilizing this technology, has reported having launched a floating solar power station—the largest in the world. China is also one of the most significant investors in solar technology around the world, for example, in the Middle East. Although the most relevant producer of solar panels worldwide, China still fulfills most of its energy needs with coal, by the way.

Another strong actor in the field of renewables is Japan, focusing mainly on solar because its geographic circumstances make it the best choice within renewables. Other than that, Japan is highly concentrating on Hydrogen (read my article "Hope for Hydrogen"). Solar is one of the fastest-growing industries in the US as well.

"Some already see a Spanish "gold rush" coming."

As for Europe, we can witness the solar boom returning. Even though Germany is not a sunshine state, it is one of the leading and most encouraging markets for solar power in the world. While France is considered to be the most attractive solar site, at the moment, also Spain is in the focus of the solar market. Not only, because it is often referred to as an example of how much land is needed to power the whole world with solar. But also because it naturally offers excellent opportunities for subsidy-free projects. Some already see a Spanish "gold rush" coming.

Another part of the world embraces solar technology: MENA—Middle East and North Africa. For obvious reasons, these areas can highly benefit from unobstructed sunlight. Dubai, for example, already is a leading solar hotspot, and everybody knows about the world famous Moroccan "Noor", a 9 billion Dollar solar thermal power plant. This project will provide valuable information about the future of solar technology in this kind of area. Experts aren't sure whether this power plant will be able to return on its investment or will be outdated before. In the end, it will show to what degree infrastructural projects can be carried out in a geopolitically unstable region like Sahara.

Finally, one of the most relevant markets shows a downside of the solar phenomenon. India faces a fast-growing demand for solar and offers the lowest prices at the same time. Ever wonder where those prices come from? Cheap production value and steadily falling wages. This leads to problems on the quality side, so, nobody actually can predict how long these components will last. Besides, making progress in green tech on the back of Indian workers doesn't add to solar power being really "sustainable". When comparing technologies concerning its socio-ecological footprint, this must be part of the whole picture.

Residential — Commercial

When we are talking about future technology and disruptive projects, we must not overlook a market that can make a huge difference to the world. There are an estimated 1 billion people without access to reliable energy—mostly in Africa and Asia. Since the world market provides cost-efficient solar photovoltaic systems for around 150 Dollars, there is a multi-billion Dollar market for off-grid renewable energy. We already witness progressively rising sales with these cheaper, greener, and healthier energy sources compared to kerosene lamps and diesel generators. People become more and more independent, which is the truly disruptive part of that progress. Problems so far, besides storing the electricity, are various struggles for African governments to shifting the R&D billions. And, international investment companies do still have problems with pricing the risk of this emerging market.

As mentioned before, installation costs have almost collapsed over the years. So, we see more and more solar photovoltaic on residential properties. Also, this opened up an investment model in which investors expect "historic growth"–once again. A project owner installs solar panels on specific properties and then sells the electricity produced by solar to the property owner or the grid. Some experts expect future challenges when there could be too much energy coming back into the system at a particular time (high noon, for example). That could cause frequency voltage disturbances, damages to other infrastructures, and localized blackouts.

"concentrated solar power has quietly returned to the market, especially in the Middle East and China"

Solar power has gained popularity not only on residential rooftops but also in terms of commercial use. Among those commercial solutions, concentrated solar power has quietly returned to the market, especially in the Middle East and China. One significant factor, again, is sinking costs. Nonetheless, concentrated solar power plants are large-scale projects—like the Moroccan "Noor"—that require massive national effort. That's why there aren't too many which were able to affect the world market price sufficiently. So, price-wise concentrated solar power is left to be cost-reducing and competitive only with larger projects. These projects need both governments willing to fund big-time and lots of sun time—like in the Middle East.

New Ways — Future Projects

Before we see more next-generation solar power on the sea or out of space, some current projects are worth looking into.

First of all, there is further development of photovoltaic technology in using lenses and curved mirrors to concentrate sunlight on multi-junction solar cells. These high-concentration photovoltaic systems could become competitive in the utility sector and areas of high insolation by 2025. This progress would make it a direct competitor to the concentrated solar power technology, which uses a different technology angle (boiling steam from water for operating a turbine). By the way, high-concentration photovoltaics are already used on spacecrafts.

Another common ground is a sector referred to as floatovoltaics. Easy to imagine, this technology utilizes water systems as a platform for solar power plants. This approach has been tested in many countries all over the world. It can help to save land area (China), to protect water from evaporation (USA), and to support the technical process.

On the chemical side, a different approach became popular—maybe not so new anymore—which is using perovskite instead of silicon. Since a hype several years ago, people have started talking about this technology again. Perovskite's high absorption allows for an ultra-thin application which opens up for a completely new and versatile use of solar technology, e.g., for architecture, engineering, design, and daily use. Perovskite solar panels can be put anywhere like on walls, windows, and windscreens. It is still not sure, though, how long these solar cells would last and if they are toxic—or to what degree. The market will show.

Exciting news, finally, comes from the automotive sector, where a Dutch car manufacturer has built a solar vehicle named "Lightyear"—which is all about efficiency. According to the manufacturer, roof and hood of this car comprise of five square meters of integrated solar cells, so as a result, the car charges itself whenever it absorbs daylight. This process leads to a range of up to 800km while riding under the sun. The battery pack is way smaller than an average electric model at present, too.

"there may be sunglasses at night, but no sun"

We expect further progress in terms of storage, too. So far, the Achilles' heel of solar power is the blunt fact that there may be sunglasses at night, but no sun. Moreso, there's a massive demand for electricity at that time. Clouds seem to be an even bigger problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, to be truly clean, the solar power industry might need to work on its recycling aspects as well. Finally, acknowledging solar power's great potential, this technology needs to be improved on the efficiency-side—to capture more of the sun's energy.

Solar Business Forecast

The energy need by 2030 will be around 200 trillion kilowatt hours, as experts estimate. To reach this goal with renewables will cost trillions of Dollars within the next 10 to 15 years. Yes, this means a large market, but the most important investor might still be the taxpayer for a while–not the free market.

The reality is that only solar power is quite on track of the IEA's Sustainable Development Scenario. So, renewables are massively under pressure to deliver on their public promises. Solar only accounts for 2% of global energy supply—but this figure will climb progressively, experts predict.

"The future for solar power can be bright if the industry can manage to improve on technology and costs."

The future for solar power can be bright if the industry can manage to improve on technology and costs. Then solar power's enormous growth can lead to solar being a viable part of the world's long term energy mix.

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