Solar power: From a decade of acceptability and growth to one of innovations

Global investment in new renewable energy capacity in the past decade was over $2.5 trillion, with more solar power capacity installed than other generation technologies

By Pratha Jhawar
Published: Tuesday 18 August 2020

The world is at a crossroads: Quick economic recovery has become the top-most agenda of governments across the world, but there is also caution over the impending dangers of climate change. Fossil fuels must be avoided and solar power is a proven solution.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) included a new scenario in its World Energy Outlook 2010 report for the first time after recovering from the economic slowdown of 2008-2010.

This new scenario was to “anticipate future actions by governments to meet the commitments they made to tackle climate change and growing energy insecurity”.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) emerged as a key technology that gradually gained acceptability between 2010 and 2019. Efficiency improvements led to price reductions to such levels that PVs acquired the most dominant position on the world energy stage.

Global investment in new renewable energy capacity in the past decade was over $2.5 trillion, with more solar power capacity installed than other generation technologies, according to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2019 report published by the UN Environment Programme.

Solar PV tariff dipped to Rs 2.44 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) from about Rs 15 / kWh in the past decade in India. The current decade will be accompanied by more innovations and developments, as the country has already learned the art of installing power plants with capacities going up to thousands of megawatts.

India has also set a target to install 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022 and 300 GW by 2030.

Solar PV segment will outpace other sectors in growth and capacity

Source: IEA

Some industry experts shared their views on the short-term and medium-term developments in the solar power sector at the CTOs Tech Picks and Trends: Innovation, IoT and Defining Next Decade Tech Outlook webinar organised by Firstview Media August 13, 2020. 

“Electricity demand is increasing. If 24x7 renewable energy has to become reality, storage will become a critical part,” said Arul Shanmugasundram, head of innovation and business collaboration at Tata Power Ltd.

The integration of 10-15 per cent storage capacity will be required, according to Shanmugasundram. The inclusion of monitoring through the Internet of Things and a fair amount of automation will make plants flexible for responding to fluctuating demand, he added.

Results of experiments conducted with bi-facial solar modules — that produce power from both sides of panels — in different background colours was discussed by Sudhir Pathak, head of engineering at Hero Future Energies Pvt Ltd.

In the case of a white background, an additional generation of 20 per cent was observed. Such modules will be used commercially at rooftops and gradually at utility-scale after experience from a few pilot projects, according to him.

There have been innovations to develop other technologies as well. Silicon-based solar cells, for example, are well-established technology. They may, however, be taken over by perovskite solar cells — synthetic hybrid organic-inorganic compounds — in six-seven years.

Pathak said perovskites had the potential to create disruption. “The cost of these synthetic compounds can hit rock-bottom and the efficiencies will improve,” he said.

“We should be technology agnostic. Any technology that provides higher efficiencies and higher ratings at lower costs will suffice. Performance and reliability are of utmost importance,” said Rabindran Sunder Singh, director of design and engineering at SB Energy Corp.

The unit rate realised from a solar plant also depends on cost, rating and performance of balance of system items that include inverters, cables, etc. These are maturing and evolving according to solar industry’s demand.

Innovations matched with speed ensure optimised solutions and the best return on investment for independent power producers.

Idrish Khan, chief technology officer at the Solis Solar Group highlighted the progress inverters made in the past few years. There was a trend of decreasing costs, with an increase in compactness. A 100-kW inverter is now squeezed in a few square metres. String inverters have transformed in capacities to 255 kW from 10 kW.

VK Bajaj, chief operating officer at Apar Industries Ltd underscored the importance of cabling solar plants and advancements on requirements of ambient temperature, sizing, optimisation and ISI standards. He called for a solar and cable solar industry debate to lay down rules to innovate.   

Given that the capacity and sizing of one PV module now extended over 600 watts, Deepak Saxena, head of engineering at Avaada Power Pvt Ltd said this required experiments with civil structures.

The industry was now experiencing new dynamics, according to him. New bids like hybrid, round-the-clock, peak-power supply and open trade of power opened up the road for innovation, he added. Better asset management and demand-side management will be key and was possible through data analytics and digitisation of storage.

“With digitised systems, we should be able to attain the idea of prescriptive maintenance over preventive maintenance,” said Pathak. This meant algorithms will help take actions in advance.

The advancement in design of solar plants and maintaining grid stability will also cater to changing regulations and standards, as solar continues to increase in capacity and status.

The opportunities for innovation in the field of solar and renewables are immense. This decade will embrace some anticipatory developments and will surprise some with new path-breaking discoveries and inventions.

In the coming times, it will be interesting to see how India leverages these changing technologies and what will be its own contribution to innovations, given it is struggling to develop the manufacturing sector and lacks in research and development. India can, however, be a world leader in developing information technology-based solutions for the best performance of systems.

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