The year in solar, part I: New modules, flat-pack solar and inverter turbulence

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With those of us who care about the environment in general, and the world of PV in particular having been bruised by the blocking tactics of Russia, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia at the COP 24 summit in coal-friendly Poland at the tail-end of 2018, some new year cheer was much required at the start of 2019.

Fortunately the turn of the year heralded glimmers of hope with news of applications for some 139 GW of new solar capacity across The Pond – five times the amount of solar in the U.S. at that point. And the anticipated five-year U.S. solar boom seems to have started with a bang, with Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Jenny Chase recently predicting the States will this year edge out India to stay the world’s second biggest PV market with around 11 GW of new capacity added.

The importance of completing the energy transition was again emphasized by a report from researchers at three organizations which posited the world could still stay below the more ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius global heating ceiling by using natural solutions. That study, by researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney; University of Melbourne; and the German Aerospace Center – and bankrolled by Hollywood star Leonardo di Caprio – concluded an energy system running entirely on renewables by 2050 was a key part of the solution.

New products

David Renné, president of the International Solar Energy Society, told pv magazine of the importance of aggressive national targets in attaining that cherished goal. He remained hopeful of India hitting its 100 GW of solar target in two years’ time, despite huge skepticism elsewhere, but said the government must do more to foster a domestic solar manufacturing industry.

In technology terms, there were plenty of leaps forward to offer cause for optimism. REC Group in March announced the arrival of its residential N-Peak Black module, offering up to 325 W just as Chinese manufacturer Trina launched four new, upgraded products – the Tallmax, Duomax, Duomax Twin and Honey – with the top end boasting up to 415 W from the 72-cell devices.

And everyone’s favorite flat-pack kings, Ikea, made it even easier to buy rooftop solar panels by introducing complete systems for sale at its stores in Germany, having already seen an encouraging response at its stores in Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the U.K.

Bifacial and inverters

Another product which appeared likely to be flying off the shelves was the smart meter, the popularity of which was starting to cause issues in some solar households. For example in Flanders, the decision to mandate smart meter use was seen as a potential threat to the rate of return of domestic solar arrays – no trifling issue given the wealthy region is the solar capital of Belgium. In Chile too, smart meter use was causing ructions, albeit more familiar ones centered on the ownership of energy use data.

Straying back to Flanders and Belgium, their respective research institutes – EnergyVille and imec – drew up a simulation to help developers plot output from bifacial solar panels. Our prediction last year that bifacial modules would start to displace single-sided products proved to be bang on the money, despite the lack of data to correctly assess claims of huge leaps in output.

In the business world, inverters provided the headlines early in the year, with French multinational Schneider Electric pulling out of the utility scale PV segment to focus on residential and commercial-industrial products. The mass market appeal of small scale distributed generation system inverters was underscored by Siemens announcing its intent to acquire the inverter manufacturing operation of fellow German business Kaco New Energy.

Legal wrangle

Another attention-grabbing development in the business world was altogether less cordial as Korean solar manufacturer Hanwha Q-Cells fired the opening salvo in a patent infringement claim against Chinese rival Jinko Solar and Norwegian manufacturer REC in Germany, and against the same two companies plus Chinese operator Longi in the U.S. With Hanwha claiming its rivals had used its patented cell passivation technology on their own products, this was a story that was set to run and run.

On the policy front, Italy fleshed out the Strategia Energetica Nazionale announced in November 2017 with a National Integrated Plan for Climate and Energy 2020. The gist of the new policy announcement was that the nation would hit 74 TWh of clean energy generation in 2030, up from the previously announced 72 TWh, and would be shooting for 50 GW of generation capacity.

That would offer a tasty prospect for developers, albeit staggered over a decade. A more immediate attraction was plans for a 798 MW tender announced by the Ethiopian government in January. Addis Ababa said it wanted six large scale solar projects across four states in a tender worth an estimated $795 million. Happy new year indeed.

China

The big policy focus was of course on China, where the intent to drastically reduce public solar subsidies announced in the middle of 2018 had been followed by months of silence from Beijing. The National Development and Reform Commission and National Energy Agency in January announced plans for a national push on grid-parity solar by removing quotas on such, unsubsidized facilities and prioritizing funding and dispatch for them. As far as subsidized projects were concerned, however, the solar world was left hanging on rumors that emerged from talks between the government and industry in the capital which concerned a switch to reverse-auctions for the setting of solar electricity tariffs.

At least Elon Musk was in town to lift spirits in January, visiting Shanghai for the ceremonial groundbreaking on the Tesla gigafactory there. At that point, the charismatic CEO said the facility would be churning out its Model 3 for the Chinese market this year. He still has a few days left…

There were positive developments in the world of e-mobility, with plunging prices for electric vehicle battery raw materials lithium and cobalt bringing the prospect of price parity with fossil fuel-driven models as near as 2025.

Raw material sourcing

As part of pv magazine’s global UP sustainability initiative, we will focus on raw material sourcing in the energy storage industry in Q1, 2020. You can look forward to reading about lithium extraction in Chile, cobalt from the Congo and the development of raw material recycling. Contact up@pv-magazine.com for more information or to jump on board!

The link with PV was reflected by the rise of the solar carport, with the structures springing up across the U.S., a phenomenon examined in an article for the March edition of the print magazine as well as online.

Green hydrogen was another big growth area this year and, with projects proliferating across Germany and Australia, January brought news of construction of a 100% renewable energy housing community in Sweden. By that stage, municipal housing company Vårgårda Bostäder, Danish firm Better Energy and Sweden’s Nilsson Energy had already completed one of six apartment blocks that would feature rooftop solar plus long-term hydrogen energy storage and co-generation. When completed, the development will see 172 apartments run entirely on solar power, with the hydrogen storage evening out supply all year round and meeting residents’ heating requirements too.

Not a bad start to the year, all told.

Read parts II, III and IV to complete the picture.