Reaching for the Sun: Solar is Progressing, Not Quite Mature

By Jim Romeo

Electrical Contractor Magazine, January 2016

Solar-power technology is growing wide and deep through installations and planned projects. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is banking on solar technology to revitalize the once-booming steel city of Buffalo, which hosts one of the largest solar-panel fabrication facilities of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. In Iowa, solar panels are found atop barns and farm structures rather than the parking lots and urban structures in nearby cities. Solar is quickly catching on as a means to lighten the economic burden of farmers faced with risk of environmental setbacks, such as flooding and erosion.

Certain regions in Iowa use solar to provide a majority of the power to school districts that are struggling economically. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia plans to use solar power to supplement energy for a desalination plant to produce fresh water, touting it as a contribution to the fight against climate change.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the U.S. solar-power industry has achieved record-breaking levels with 1,393 megawatts (MW) of installed solar capacity. The residential and utility-scale markets are leading the way, having installed 463 and 729 MW of power, respectively. Through the first half of 2015, the solar industry supplied 40 percent of all new 2015 electricity-generating capacity—more than any other energy technology.

Several solar-power technology developments have emerged that are worth watching. They are related to the capture, storage and conversion of solar energy.

Any discussion on solar technology advancement must include a key development: the decline in cost to produce and install solar panels. Since 2006, the cost to install solar—once the technology’s Achilles’ heel—has dropped by 73 percent. While costs have declined, gains in panel efficiency were lagging until now. However, panels are not only becoming less expensive to produce and install, but they are more efficient and effective in the power they are yielding.

Suvi Sharma, CEO of solar-technology company Solaria, said new technologies are more efficient but cost similar to conventional solar-panel technology.

Another key development in solar technology is integration with architectural construction components. Now that costs are declining, engineers can focus on integrating solar technology into other building materials. With this, more solar energy may be captured from the entire surface area of a structure, rather than the panel placement only. Skylights, glass facades and other parts of a structure may be built with integrated-solar technology that harnesses solar rays to convert to electrical energy for consumption.

“The market for solar rooftops has grown exponentially; the next frontier is incorporating the solar directly in the building skin,” Sharma said. “As an example, Solaria has developed a unique manufacturing process to cut solar cells into very thin strips and laminate these into glass facades that produce electricity while allowing a clear view to the outside. Leading global glass companies have started incorporating these into their mainstream products, and this will be a major trend in the next five years.”

Another development includes technology advances in storing the electrical energy that solar power produces. Robert Magyar, managing director of renewable energy-consulting-services firm Navitus Strategies, said there is a rapid emergence of fully integrated battery-storage systems.

“These storage systems are designed to be connected to existing and new solar arrays for use both as emergency standby power and for demand-response mitigation for commercial accounts,” he said. “This new generation of battery-storage systems contains all required power electronic inverter components, state-of-the-art monitoring software and includes a new breed of long-life, multiple-cycle lithium-ion batteries.”

Inverter technology advancements are notable as well. Inverters transform the direct current (DC) from the photovoltaic cell into alternating current (AC) for conventional use. Jason Smith, vice president, operations for CalCom Solar in Visalia, Calif., said there are great advances in the efficiency of different types of inverters and their functionality.

“The Huawei string-level [inverter] technology is setting pace for many of the other inverter manufacturers,” Smith said. “String-level monitoring, an additional MPPT [maximum power point tracking], power line communications, and the removal of DC fusing makes for a more robust and remotely operated technology.”

While the solar industry is progressing, it isn’t mature. It will likely continue to struggle with politics surrounding issues such as climate change, tax incentives and unpredictable demand.

However, many influential factors in the industry seem to be galvanizing the adoption of solar technology. It can be an economic boon to communities by creating jobs in research, development, installation and maintenance. Energy consumers also benefit greatly from a growing source of renewable energy in a dubious energy market and delicate world environment.

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