As advancements have been made in energy efficiency, many people are curious what the future of solar technology will look like. To shed some light on this topic, Chris Ihler, EnergyLink’s CEO, has shared his insights below. Having nearly 10 years of experience in the renewable energy industry, he has an excellent handle on what has and will take place.
Advancements in the actual solar panels and racking systems will be very minimal in the next few years as well as 20 years. Racking is as minimal as it can get and very closely related to the cost of commodities like steel and aluminum. The panels installed today use the same raw materials that they have for the last 40 years.
The world economy of solar (in a general macro sense) has followed this sequence: Spain then Germany, now America. By the time America got into the adoption of solar at a larger scale, the best advancements came in the process of mining the raw materials and the ability to manufacture more panels with a higher level of quality control, therefore larger production ruins, better quality, less expensive out to the door pricing.
The efficiency rating of the combined raw materials (boron, titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide, etc) has only improved slightly from about 20% up to 22% in the last 20 years and the ratio of efficiency to cost per watt isn’t foreseen to increase at this point in time.
One major advance in solar panel tech is the ability for panels to run under partial shade, which is really an advancement only helping residential or downtown applications. Solar shingles and PV thin film are the next advancements in solar cells and will likely hit a reasonable cost parody price point 10 years from now, but neither option will improve the economics of a project; they will produce the same quality of energy for 35+ years with a 0.5% per year degradation factor.
This is where companies need to focus their attention to answer whether the future of solar remains bright. Inverters—or the power electronics and software that control the DC power generated by the solar panels—are going to have the biggest advancements in the next 5-10 years. There have been major advances in the software systems that control the power electronics of the inverters since America got on the solar bandwagon.
Today’s inverters are built for software updates to flow through just like your cell phone, so you can expect the system to keep up with the evolution of the market for the life of the inverter (about 15 to 17 years). Inverter pricing is expected to come down over the next decade, but with the cost of inflation will likely offset this and cost will be the same in actual dollars spent.
Most of the advancements that we will see in the inverter market over the next 5-10 years will be in their ability to regulate fluctuations in the high-frequency demand response of the power output in order to match the billing metric of utilities. As a side note, most inverters nowadays are equipped and ready to be upgraded with batteries and would only require a software update.
Batteries represent the biggest and most concrete tech shift to come in the solar market over the next 6 to 10 years. Connecting batteries to solar systems enables power generated by the solar system to be stored for use in parts of the day where the sun isn’t out (i.e. during the night or cloudy conditions).
It’s much easier to connect solar with battery tech now than it was before, and new types of batteries which have many different applications for different types of facilities or uses are coming out year over year. Lithium iron is an example of an excellent advancement in battery tech. Over time, battery tech will get even better, which will in turn make solar an even greater investment.
Solar racking and panels are a solid long-term investment, and their pricing has entered it’s “perfectly competitive market” phase. Companies need to plan for upgrades in inverter + software tech and prepare for advancements in battery tech (adding the battery tech on at a later date if applicable).