The story of solar photovoltaic technology spans nearly two centuries, but the most glorious part of this story is the last decade. It is like the good-old movies where the underdog struggles for most of the story but when they finally emerge successful, they shake the world!
The 2010s, particularly, have stood out as the definitive decade of solar power. Solar technology has evolved to undergo some of the most incredible transformations in this one decade. Let’s take a look at the list of things that changed:
1. Solar Panels are More Powerful
In 2012, a typical, supposedly premium solar panel offered an efficiency of 15%. This was considered amazing, given that the first solar cell had a paltry efficiency of just 4%. But now, in 2023, the efficiency numbers of 2012 look uninspiring. Today, most tier 1 solar panels come with an efficiency above 20%, with the best products boasting efficiencies of around 22%.
That’s not all, some prototype-level or lab-stage solar cells have set astounding new records, such as NREL’s new solar cell that gets close to the impossible 40%-mark. What this means for end applications, is that we will need smaller and/or fewer solar panels for the same applications. For instance, rooftop solar power systems today can generate the same power while taking 30-40% less space.
As the efficiency climbs further, new possibilities will open up, such as solar-powered mobility.
2. Solar Panels are Stronger
Modern solar panels are surprisingly sturdy. Just a decade ago, solar panel and solar cell breakages were a lot more common. However, stronger components are making cells and panels more resistant to cracks. For example, a new solar cell by SunPower uses a copper back-plate that adds strength to the cell, while also improving its performance.
Similarly, the glass used in modern solar panels is less resistant to thermal expansion and shrinking, and has higher transparency and low reflectivity - all of which help in improving panel performance as well as strength.
3. New Innovations are Making an Entry
From mere sun-drying to solar panels, we have come a seriously long way. And yet, every few years, there comes a new innovation that makes the entire history of solar look uneventful! Here is a list of the major technological innovations in the solar industry in the past decade.
3.A. Solar shingles
As an answer to the criticism that solar panels look ugly on a house (do they?!), some genius minds at the Dow Chemical Company designed the world’s first solar shingles. These are shingles that look like regular roof tiles, but can also generate power from sunlight. This is arguably the best example of Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV).
Solar shingles were further revolutionized by Tesla, and today, multiple companies have their own versions of the solar roof. Although slightly more expensive than regular solar panels, solar shingles are a sleek, aesthetically pleasing innovation for anyone who is not a fan of regular solar panels.
3.B. Flexible solar panels
Solar panels can be delicate and relatively bulky. The actual power-generating part of a panel is the array of solar cells inside, which barely make 5% or less of the total panel weight. Flexible solar panels eliminate the front glass, making the device a lot lighter, more durable, and also a lot more handy.
A flexible solar panel pasted on a caravan (source: Renogy)
Flexible solar panels are a great option for RVs, boats, etc., where you can paste the panel onto an uneven surface. These are also great for other portable applications, where you can just roll them like yoga mats and throw them into your car’s boot for a camping trip.
A major development in the area of flexible solar is printable modules. Several institutes have successfully created printable solar technology. Imagine printing a solar module like printing an invoice, then slapping it onto something for clean, free power.
3.C. Transparent solar cells
Over the past decade, multiple research organizations have come up with their own version of a transparent solar cell. For example, a team at Australia’s Monash University in Australia invented a transparent solar cell with an admirable efficiency of 17%.
A transparent solar cell created by MIT scientists
As transparent solar becomes more mainstream, it will find countless applications - from skyscrapers powered by their own glass walls, to smartphones and car windshields.
3.D. N-type and Half-Cell Solar Panels
Among the less sci-fi-sounding innovations of the past decade are N-type and half-cell solar panels. N-type panels use an inverse doping technique to reduce losses. Over their lifespan, N-type panels generate significantly higher energy than their P-type counterparts.
N-type vs. p-type solar cell construction
Half-cell panels, on the other hand, use a larger number of solar cells cut in half, again improving efficiency by reducing thermal or shading losses.
A half-cell panel by JA Solar
3.E. Floating Solar Plants
Rooftop solar systems use the readily available space on your roofs, which would typically have no other application. However, larger-scale solar plants take up a significant portion of land. For example, the new, 400 MW solar farm at Rangitāiki will use more than 1,500 acres.
Floating solar plants are, as the name suggests, solar farms that float on a water body.
A 5 MW floating solar plant in Portugal (source: WEF)
This has multiple benefits. Firstly, it saves on the cost of land. Secondly, it reduces the evaporation of the water underneath, which is a crucial resource, especially in drier areas. Lastly, by being placed over water, the average temperature of the solar panels remains relatively low, resulting in higher efficiency and lower thermal losses and degradation.
4. Solar Panels are Cheaper
According to data compiled by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the cost of monocrystalline solar in 2012 was about USD 1/W. Within just one decade, this cost has fallen down to USD 0.2/W. This is a massive, 80% drop in costs in just 10 years, and is reminiscent of the mobile phone market’s takeover of the communication sector from the turn of the century.
Thanks to the dropping prices, solar has emerged as the leading power source, threatening even coal, its longstanding competitor. In the past decade, about $2.6 trillion was invested in renewables, half of which went to solar power.
5. Solar Panels are More In-Demand
Thanks to the low prices, high savings potential, and other benefits, solar power systems are popping up all over New Zealand faster than ever. We previously reported that the number of systems in the country went up from just 2,236 in Dec. 2013 to 25,431 in Dec. 2019.
In Oct. 2022, this number had changed to a whopping 45,361. Worldwide, the installed capacity of solar rose from just 25 GW in 2009 to 663 GW in just a decade! Experts predict that as grid electricity costs climb and the climate worsens, more and more Kiwis will turn to solar.
6. Solar Panels Create More Jobs
A study by the International Labour Organization showed that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, 2021 saw a record 700,000 new renewable energy jobs being created. This took the total number of renewable energy jobs to 12.7 million.
But the most striking finding of the study is this - solar power was the biggest contributor of jobs to the clean energy sector, with 4.3 million jobs being provided over the years. In other words, solar contributed to over a third of the total renewable jobs so far.
Wrapping It Up
Some experts speak about something called the “Solar Singularity”. It means that solar power becomes so inexpensive and so obvious as a choice of energy source, that it not only becomes the default option, but also slowly takes over all other power sources.
While this sounds a bit dramatic, a look at the past decade suggests that this may actually happen in the not-so-far future. With constant research happening worldwide, the technology is advancing at breakneck speed. And along with the advancing technology, the socio-economic impact of solar power is becoming more pronounced.
As we noted previously, the story of solar power and traditional grid power feels strangely similar to the story of mobile phones and landline devices. In simpler words, the takeover of solar power seems not only obvious, but also inevitable.