The summer has (finally) arrived this month, with temperatures hitting around 30 degrees across parts of the UK in the past few weeks. June 21st, the summer solstice, marks the longest day of the year, with 17 daylight hours out of 24.
The cost of solar has fallen over the last decade, with new tech promising to increase efficiency and lower costs further. This means a lot more solar power potential.
Solar power is low maintenance and low polluting, with no noise or harmful emissions created when generating power as well as a typical home with solar panels reducing their carbon footprint.
In recognition of the longest day of the year, we’re taking a dive into solar generation and its future.
The most common form of solar energy comes from photovoltaics (PV). These are the ‘typical’ solar panels most people get installed on their roof at home. Solar PV cells absorb light from the sun to generate energy.
The other way solar power can be generated is through concentrated solar power (CSP), also known as solar thermal energy. CSP is a system which directs and magnifies sunlight using mirrors and lenses. This uses thermal energy from the sun to make steam, and generates electricity through a turbine.
CSP systems are capable of storing energy through the use of Thermal Energy Storage technologies. As a result, they can be used at times where there is little to no sunlight, like on cloudy days in the UK or overnight. It’s a great step towards solving the issue of irregularity with renewables. We spoke to Immersa earlier this year to discuss batter storage potential.
PV systems aren’t capable of storing energy in the same way since they use direct sunlight, but are favoured due to their lower cost and ease of build. This may mean that energy investors are more inclined to use this setup rather than CSP. Hopefully in the future a hybrid of CSP and PV systems will work together with battery storage to drive solar energy further forward.
At the moment, the UK is installing solar panels faster than any other European country. Solar seems to be one of the most popular forms of energy generation but uptake of domestic solar generation is still slow. There could be a number of reasons for this - the location of the property, the aesthetics of the solar panels, the cost, or simply a lack of desire to install them.
There have been a few government schemes to support domestic solar installations, like the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) launched in January 2020, and the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) scheme prior to that. The end of the FIT saw some installers exit the sector thanks to subsidy cuts which meant a decline in residential solar. The SEG also included an increase of VAT on PV installations which could be a factor in the slow down of solar capacity growth in the UK. The benefit of FIT was that members were paid for generation on top of export so there was a bigger financial incentive.
Interestingly, new building rules announced recently could spark a boom in solar installations as new homes will be required to produce less carbon dioxide than they do now. This will require better energy efficiency as well as being ‘heat pump ready’. In Scotland, they tightened rules in 2015 to make new-builds 22% lower-carbon. This led to 80% of new homes in Scotland featuring solar, making it a mainstream technology. For most homes, we expect solar to be the most cost-effective way to remain below the carbon threshold which’ll hopefully get more panels up on roofs.
If England has the same rate of uptake, there’s potential for more than 200,000 new solar homes to be incorporated onto the grid each year, and more schemes and technologies developed in the future to drive renewable generation. This remains a long-ish term commitment if you want to make the investment in the panels worth the cost of installing them, but perhaps new enforced regulations and government subsidies could be the key to further decreasing the cost of panels and increasing their efficiency.
The increase in solar uptake also comes from a fall in manufacturing costs. China accounts for 70% of the world’s solar panel production, and about 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon (the shiny, semi-metallic substance from which solar panels are made) comes from Xinjiang-based manufacturers. However, Xinjiang in China is not only at the forefront of solar production, but also at the forefront of questions about alleged forced-labour programs and victimisation of minority groups. These issues could lead to trade embargos or re-negotiations limiting access to Chinese production. If this happens, prices may increase again, possibly leading to a darker time for solar with prices for polysilicon already surging in the post covid-19 marketplace. So far, attempts to set up supply chains from elsewhere haven’t managed to lower the cost of installations, so it will be interesting to see how production can become more ethical during the move towards a greener future.
On a brighter note, one technology we do think is worth mentioning alongside solar is electric vehicles (EVs). As smarter and greener tech develops and people become more aware of their energy consumption, there’s potential for innovative products to work better together. EVs are becoming increasingly popular, so now could be the perfect time to push forward further investment and planning for solar EV solutions before the demand for EVs overtakes availability. This would jump on a growing market and create a space for solar to become even more attractive for residential use.
The popularity of EVs means more new builds are incorporating charging technology, so this paired with the newer regulations could create the installation boom we were looking for.
Perhaps the best way forward is to drive combination systems, where PV solar panels can be installed along with other technologies such as heat pumps, batteries, thermal panels or EV charging ports.
Improving the aesthetics of solar panels could also impact their popularity in the future. One interesting innovation to tackle this came from Carvey Ehren Maigue, an engineering student who invented see-through solar panels made from waste crops. These panels can be used over the windows of high-rise buildings, absorbing stray UV light and converting it into clean, renewable electricity. This means they’d even work on darker days and are much easier on the eye in our opinion!
Overall, we think that the future’s looking bright for solar. Energy storage needs to be developed further and thorough investment made from companies, governments and individuals to ensure its success and sustainability.
What would encourage you to get involved in solar energy? We’d love to know!
Happy summer solstice!