Powering Solar to 2025 and beyond

Powering Solar to 2025 and beyond

The Technologies and Interventions That Will Drive Solar

global solar sector

For the global solar sector, the pandemic hit home much earlier than it did for many other sectors. For even before global lockdowns became the norm, China’s early lockdown in late January, followed by other cities subsequently, was sufficiently disruptive for global shipments of solar equipment, of which China is a source for closet to 70 percent or more. The surprising fact however is that the final toll, when it is taken by the end of 2020, is likely to be much lower than estimated in the first half of the year. Mainly due again to a faster than expected bounce back in China, not to mention the stress on ‘green recovery’ plans in many large markets, especially the European union. In markets like India too, efforts were made to protect the sector by placing it under the exempt category from lockdown measures, although the measure had very limited impact, thanks to the large scale disruption the broader lockdown and the worker migrations it triggered off have caused.

The net result is that 2020 is likely to see a drop over 2019, but not by as much as feared. From a beginning of the year prediction of just over 140 GW of capacity additions globally in 2020, the latest predictions place capacity additions this year at just over 100 GW. That is well below 2019’s figure of 114.5 GW capacity additions, but below a hit of over 20 percent, as was feared in the middle of this year. The new capacity additions in 2020 should also take total global solar capacity to 730 GW. In fact, an IRENA report last year projected solar PV growth to 2840 GW by 2030, and 8519 GW by 2050. A 4x growth over 2020 numbers, and in 2050, just under 12 times. If that happens, solar is supposed to be the second largest electricity source after wind, providing 25 percent of power globally. Even the IEA’s World Energy Outlook Report 2020 places Solar as the new ‘King of Electricity’, displacing coal. A process that has already seen it overtake coal in terms of investments, worldwide.

Everyone Agrees, Solar to Have Largest Capacity

Everyone Agrees, Solar to Have Largest Capacity

Solar To have Largest Capacity by 2050

Solar To have Largest Capacity by 2050

So what will be the big drivers powering the next phase of solar growth?

We looked at various factors, and our researchers, after a lot of diligence, have come up with these five solar drivers without which, most of these projections could not just miss their targets, it could have massive implications for global targets on emissions reduction and decarbonisation of the power grids too.

  1. Technology, Especially Storage: It is no secret that technological improvements that came with fresh innovations and scale have been the primary reason behind the growth of solar. A large part of these improvements have been on the manufacturing side, that has allowed costs to slide by 82 percent over the past decade, according to renewable Industry body IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency). That has made solar power the lowest cost energy source today, where the right policy and ground conditions have merged, says the other global energy body IEA (International Energy Agency). But that hardly guarantees continuous growth for the next decade.

Solar’s next decade requires sustained technology breakthroughs, be it in module efficiency, inverters to manage it all, and perhaps most importantly, storage technology. The issue of recycling will also emerge in due time as a key issue.

Global research agency WoodMac (Wood Mackenzie), in its Solar PV Module Technology Report 2020, highlights three key technologies that will drive the push for lower costs. Larger wafers, n-type cells, and cell- and module-level techniques. Wafers in the new M6, M10 and G12 formats have been singled out, with some of the largest manufacturers on course to start building them by the end of this year or early in 2021. The report points out that M6, M10, and G12 wafer-based modules will reach 28GW, 63GW, and 59GW in capacity respectively, by the end of 2021. By 2025, the production capacity of modules using M10 and G12 wafers is forecasted to exceed 90GW, making them the dominant technologies by manufacturing capacity. Wafer sizes, besides offering higher power output and efficiency, are also proving to be an easy manufacturing transition from the existing M0, or 156 mm side length cut, that has been used with a 200mm ingot for a long time now. The M12, for instance, has a side lenth of just 210 mm for the ingot.

Predicted market share trend in mono-Si wafer sizes. Source: ITRPV 2019

Predicted market share trend in mono-Si wafer sizes. Source: ITRPV 2019

Report author Dr. Xiaojin Sun says that “Multiple industry alliances have been formed since early 2020 to ensure the entire solar ecosystem evolves to support the adoption of large modules. If the industry’s efforts bear fruit, we forecast that large module shipments in 2021 will account for approximately 40% of the total shipment of crystalline silicon modules. By the end of 2025, modules made with wafer sizes smaller than M6 will phase out of the market.”

TOPCon (Tunnel activated passivated contacts) and HIT modules are also in focus , for their performance and efficiency under extreme heat. One reason some of the earliest large projects using them have been set up in the middle east. In TOPCon modules, a nanometer scale layer of silicon oxide along with a thicker polycrystalline silicon layeris inserted between the silicon wafer and metal contacts. These layers reduce charge recombination between the wafer and the contacts, leading to a higher carrier lifetime and resulting in a conversion efficiency boost of around 0.5%. Moreover, the temperature co-efficient of n-type cell technology’s , at -0.32%, compares well to -0.37-0.39% for the more dominant p-type. That makes the combination a favourite with bifacial modules, the emerging technology that is expected to be 40 percent of global installations by 2025. Right now, there is a production challenge to surmount, while keeping costs low, that is keeping volumes here low. But not for long.

For India, which is making a massive push for more manufacturing capacity, it is important to start on the right foot by ensuring he new capacities are good blend of existing ‘economical’ and these future technologies too.

At the ISA (International Solar Alliance) organised First World Solar Technology Summit in September, Professor Eicke Weber, Chairman of the European Solar Manufacturing Council (ESMC) spoke about the transition from 2nd generation (PERC) to 3rd generation (Passivating Contacts – HJT) high-efficiency technologies (graph). And that with this transition, we will witness the efficiency of panels increasing from the 20-21 percent to high 24 and even 26 percent in a few years. He went to to cite tandem solar cells as even more disruptive, which will be the fourth generation of technology that will utilise the breakthrough Perovskite materials for bumping up efficiencies beyond even 30 percent.

Another area with huge impact is likely to be storage. Here, the possibilities are massive, both in terms of storage in front of the meter (generator end) , and storage that is behind the meter (user end) . For instance, a sharp drop in storage costs could easily change the dynamics for end users, or behind the meter consumers, as they could potentially produce a significant amount of their energy without going through the grid (meter) at all. While hybrid solar+storage projects have started being bid out in India, its still early days, as no significant project is scheduled to come online this year, or possibly even next year. Developers have also been given enough flexibility in both supply conditions for round the clock supply bids, along with a choice of storage technologies, which means the largest hybrid project for now (won by Greenko group) is going to use pumped storage.

  1. Floating Solar: Land has always been a sticking point for solar parks, and is set to become an even bigger issue for India in particular. From Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat and Ladakh, rumblings of discontent at issues related to land, have already started. With an average of 5 acres of land needed for every 1 MW of grid scale solar, the maths of finding the land for the next 200 GW might be far more complicated than most people imagine. Which is where floating solar comes in.

Floating PV (FPV) is being widely touted as the third pillar of solar, after utility scale solar and rooftop solar. It also occupies a broad middle ground, for capacities ranging from 25 Kw to upto 100 MW possibly. The advantages of FPV’s are well known, in avoiding/saving land, offering slightly higher efficiencies due to the cooling effect of water, and surprisingly, lower offtake or transmission costs for large plants, which are being considered on reservoirs linked to large hydro electric plants with established transmission systems. Interestingly, unlike land based PV plants where other use cases like agriculture are still being explored , FPV’s in many cases have not disrupted the eco-system they operate in, allowing activities like fishing or even fish farming to be continued.

The biggest challenge with floating solar, higher costs- has also proved to be relatively short lived, as costs have closely followed land based solar plant costs, finally staying about 15-20 percent higher, a number that is acceptable considering the other advantages it brings. All this has been achieved with an existing global installed capacity of just around 2.5 GW for FPV’s.

Currently, Asia is supposed to be the hub of new FPV capacities, with just China (3GW), Japan, South Korea(2.1 GW) and India(1.2 GW) having a project pipeline (tendered and projected) of over 6 GW to 2025. That might not sound like a lot, but it could ramp up very fast depending on further cost reductions, or even bigger land acquisition troubles, not to mention positive reports from the first of the larger projects due to come online from 2021 onwards in China, and later, South Korea. For India, plans like the large plant on the Rihand Dam reservoir, if they perform to expectations, would do much to encourage a larger shift to use the country’s many large and small water reservoirs for power generation.

  1. Solar Integration at Building Stage: One could argue that this could be covered under policy, but there is much more to this than just a couple of years back. Today, with the progress that has been made with BIPV (Building Integrated Photo Voltaic), and the promise of innovations like solar windows, policy action will simply be the icing on the cake.

The Building and construction has so far been playing catch up with the many other changes in the rest of the economy, especially when it comes to digital connectivity and energy use. However, the sector remains the most vital for its energy impact. At building industry meets in India, it is not uncommon to hear the line “ 80 percent of the buildings of 2050 are yet to be made”. That figure takes into account not just replacement and normal expansion, but the transition of a much higher share of our population to urban areas. Power consumption and demand should shoot up when that happens, especially for hitherto small segments like cooling. Yes, cooling, which is estimated to account for almost 20 percent of energy consumption by 2050, thanks to global warming, and its heightened impact in urban areas.

A 2019 report by the IEA and United Nations backed Global Alliance for Buildings And Construction states that “the buildings and construction sector should be a primary target for GHG (Greenhouse Gas)emissions mitigation efforts, as it accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy- and process-related emissions in 2018”.

At this year’s SNEC show at Shanghai, solar firms paid special attention to BIPV offerings, seeing the potential and better margins it offers. Leading firms like LONGi Solar, JinkoSolar, Talesun and Arctech Solar launched BIPV products at SNEC 2020. JinkoSolar showcased a coloured BIPV curtain wall made up of five colouring schemes, namely black, blue, purple, red and green, to offer a broader aesthetic for BIPV, that should help designers use it more.

Longi on the other hand launched its first pre-fabricated BIPV product from a brand new line, formally marking the company’s entry into the integrated BIPV market.

Much like Solar power itself till about 2015, BIPV is also close to overcoming issues of high cost, low output, and missing regulation. With virtually all three gradually falling into place over the past few years, especially across North America Europe, and now China, the BIPV segment is finally moving into the spotlight. Larger, sturdier solar panels offering higher output, that have been hitting the market this year, have only added to the possibilities here. BIPV systems compensate for other limitations of utility solar, by using existing building infrastucture (no land requirement), being able to produce even facing multiple directions (all round the building), and now with bifacials, even using internal light to produce some power. They can even compensate for the high initial cost through savings in building materials required for a BIPV roof for instance, or by providing better thermal insulation.

Beyond BIPV systems, we of course have innovations that are still to go to market, but offer huge promise for buildings. Solar shingles, where solar panels are designed to look like conventional roofing materials, while also producing electricity have been around for some time now, although costs are a big factor still.

Researchers at the US Energy Department’s NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory), for instance have progressed well on what is called a thermochromic photovoltaic, or a ‘solar window’. This window both changes colour to block glare and reduce unwanted solar heating on hot days and also allows the formation of a functioning solar cell that generates on-board power. This enhancement of the previous version can support multiple colours and a broader range of temperatures that drive the colour switch. That translates to more design flexibility for better building aesthetics as well as better energy efficiency for owners. Considering the immense new energy demand for cooling, such innovations could quickly go from an option to mandatory, if they progress well. Funded by the department’s Building technologies Office, expect a prototype by 2022.

  1. Policy Changes: Supportive policy has been one of the key reasons solar has travelled the journey that it has. If it was high subsidies in Germany and elsewhere that enabled investments into manufacturing and research through the 90’s and the first decade of this century, since 2015, it has been the dramatic support in China that has driven the sector. Generous state subsidies, and lower costs of manufacturing meant that ‘made in China’ equipment dominated global markets on the basis of low prices and more than acceptable quality, as Chinese manufacturers learnt fast. An open market in the US also helped, and lately, the support it has received, from emerging markets like Australia and India, where utility scale solar got a massive boost. But the same policy moves can stifle the next level of growth too.


solar Policy Changes

For starters, with solar power able to compete with other sources on its own now, subsidies are virtually a thing of the past. After subsidies, even government guarantees of payment for generators are being phased out now in some markets like the middle east. In India, as we have highlighted before, there are multiple issues that have turned into solar speed breakers. From the high ‘stranded’ capacity of thermal and gas power plants, to low power demand growth, to contractual obligations that have locked in discoms with other power producers, solar faces some serious challenges.

In India, the very health of the overall distribution system, or the discoms that run it, is a major stumbling block, as we have highlighted earlier. Nowhere is this exemplified better than the abysmal performance in solar rooftops, where despite very attractive prices today, adoption remains painfully slow. Mostly attributable to discom reluctance to push it. Maharashtra actually offers a case study on how to throttle solar rooftop , as we have covered in SaurEnergy earlier.

Building codes that have been voluntary until now might need to be made mandatory, in terms of both energy use, consumption and efficiency, to drive changes faster. The phasing out of solar subsidies might need to be replaced with some incentives for retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy efficient and generate at least a share of their own energy.

India’s huge air pollution problem has already brought the issue to the fore, but no effort has been made to target the energy sector through this critical large consumer for change.

  1. Grid Innovations For Effective Solar Integration: A check of the daily reports at Power System Operation Corporation Limited (POSOCO),which handles load despatch functions for India, shows the share of renewables in the national energy mix moving from a low of six to barely 10 percent. This, when total renewable energy capacity for variable renewable energy, which is fundamentally solar and wind energy, is edging close to 85 GW. And has must run status. Clearly, there is a mismatch that is leading to wastage, curtailments or more, with costs borne by consumers.

The answer, many believe, lies in storage batteries. Which is why we stressed on the need for battery costs to drop fast, for the impact it can have. In Delhi, Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited (DDL) inaugurated its first storage battery last year in March. The 10 Mwh battery is being used for used for peak load management besides deviation settlement mechanism management. Based on the current dominant standard, Lithium Ion technology, the battery essentially remains a short term, quick discharge option for now. Even the Central Electricity Authority has stated that storage at the right price will help ensure grid stability, lower power purchase costs, smoother demand spikes and ensure better integration of an increasing renewable energy contribution to the national grid.

Projected Penetration of Solar Power in Grids, by Country

Projected Penetration of Solar Power in Grids, by Country

Initiatives like the green energy corridors (GEC), meant for agricultural use, where these parallel medium to low voltage grids run exclusively on green energy or solar power for farming use, are also one way to manage the nature of power supply from renewables. In India, where power for agriculture is frequently subsidised using much more expensive thermal power, this also offers a real possibility of a solid return on investment once the initial costs of the grid and renewable energy plants is recovered. In states where subsidy is 100 percent, the period mentioned for a full return of investment is as low as 5 to 6 years, according to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).

Other measures to ensure a better integration with grids could mean spread out of the time of day pricing for energy, based on demand and supply of renewable energy. Add to that the possibilities being discussed with an ever larger Electric Vehicle (EV) feet to influence demand and even supply by plugging into the grid when not in use and supplying power, and you have a future that has as many answers as the questions being thrown around today about grid stability.

Progress with technologies and devices like Static VAR Compensators (SVC’s) that provide fast reactive power potentially allow grid operators to increase power transfer capability and improve overall grid stability when fed a high proportion of relatively unsteady renewable power.

Conclusion: For India specifically, there is absolutely no doubt that every single one of these key drivers for solar, has made only baby steps. Be it technology, where we are still doing a slow transition away from polycrystalline modules, to relatively tiny FPV’s that have actually been commissioned, to next to nothing on building regulations that can make energy generation or efficiency a key outcome. Similarly, rooftop solar has been virtually throttled, by routing the process through discoms with zero interest to resentment against it. On the battery storage and even grid front, very small steps have been taken, even as we are quickly reaching a stage where big leaps will have to be attempted. Much more than just meeting solar targets depends on it.

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