Surprises in solar

This article was first featured as a LinkedIn post from Canadian Solar CEO Dr. Shawn Qu:


After the Paris agreement on climate change and carbon reduction was signed, renewable energy leaped to the front line of the New Economy. I am often asked these days, “what are the surprises we may expect in solar technology in the next ten years?”

Well, I have been working in this industry for 20 years, so first of all, let’s count the surprises the solar industry has experienced in the past.

Surprise No. 1 is cost

It used to cost end-customers $10/W to install a solar system less than 10 years ago, now it’s $1/W. And  today’s solar panels can generate electricity for 30 years.  It usually takes less than two years for the solar panel to generate enough electricity to offset the energy it takes to produce all the solar equipment, so you are producing ‘carbon free’ electricity for the next 20 years and beyond. 

 

Image source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance & pv.energytrend.com

 

Surprise No. 2 is scale

Ten years ago, we used to install 3-4 GW of solar power plants each year across the globe . In 2016 alone, we will install more than 60 GW worldwide.

Canadian Solar itself is a living testimony for this scalability. Back in 2002, our first product was a 3 W car battery trickle charger for Audi. We produced about 200,000 units in that year, with a total capacity of roughly 700 kW. Today the product we produce the most is the 320 W solar panel for grid-tied applications. We are going to produce tens of millions of units with a total capacity of 5.4 - 5.5 GW this year  - a growth of over 8000% in only 15 years.

 

Surprise No. 3 is location

People used to think solar is a product of luxury and should only be adopted in equatorial countries, not in Northern countries like Canada. But in fact we have already installed 2 GW of solar in the Province of Ontario, Canada alone. And we have even seen Canadian Solar panels installed at an Arctic research station due to their superior low light performance.

Surprises of the future

I think the surprises in the next 10 years will again come from cost, scale and technology. I wouldn’t be surprised if we can cut the cost of solar equipment by another 30%. A cost reduction of 50% however would be a game changer, as solar would be competitive to any fossil fuel at that cost level.

Scalewise, we forecast 100 GW of annual solar installations 10 years from today, but who knows, we may surprise ourselves by installing 200 GW per year in 2025.

 

Scientists think that the theoretical efficiency limit for silicon solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity is just below 30%. This is a respectful number by the way, as the energy efficiency of a coal-fired power plant is only in the order of 30-40% - most of the energy generated by burning coal ends as wasted heat rather than useful electricity. However, somebody may invent a layered and compound solar cell structure with 50% efficiency that is still cheap to make – that would be a real surprise.

Energy storage and microgrid control technology will also bring us surprises. As solar electricity is becoming increasingly cost competitive, more and more people and communities will want to install themselves and become independent from the grid. There could be a lot of intermittent solar electricity being generated at peak hours that we need to store and control. There’s a vast amount of opportunities for such technology and know-how.

Electric cars work perfectly with solar. People primarily drive electric cars to commute from home to work. They charge their cars during the daytime, making the most out of the peak hours for solar power generation. This reflects a natural shift of load, and it’s a perfect way to store solar power.

Consumers will have more choices and we will develop different products to match their needs. At this moment, 99% of all solar panels look the same. In the future we will produce not only large standard panels for utility-scale power plants, but also solar shingles for roof-integrated applications, solar canopies for carparks etc. There won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. To address sustainability, we actually need a ‘scattergun approach’, because we live in a diversified ecosystem, and we have to address the little things in order to maintain the eco balance.

I like the term ‘Energy Internet’. On a macroscale, it means transporting green electricity through transmission lines, for example shipping wind electricity from the North and solar electricity from the South. On a microscale, it means establishing community smart grids, in which green electricity, load and energy storage devices can be monitored, controlled and intelligently balanced. We are building pilots and we are learning. This year we will complete a 4 MW lithium iron based energy storage system with Ottawa Hydro and a microgrid testing lab with Guelph Hydro. Both are among the first in the world.

I can see most fossil fuel assets being phased out and decommissioned. I hope this process happens gradually so that those fossil fuel assets don’t get stranded.

What should Canada do? The country has to look both inward and outward. At this moment, 4 out of 10 Canadian provinces have adopted renewable energy portfolio standards. All 10 provinces should have such standards. All cities should have such standards. This will give sustainable economy a home market. Meanwhile, Canada is exporting its renewable energy products and know-how instead of setting aggressive regulations and targets to build up its home market. Once that is in progress, both industry and society will figure out the best combination of solutions.

The pace of change will be faster than anyone can imagine. The development and deployment of renewable energy will be like a waterfall. Today, solar accounts for less than 1% of the worldwide energy generation, but it has the potential to reach 10% in the next 10 years. Scientists believe that renewable energy can account for 50% of our energy generation by 2050. Well, wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise? Many of us will have a chance to live and see that day.