The year in solar, part III: Battery breakthroughs, inverter trouble, sustainable role models and new tech


As we moved into the third quarter of another eventful year in PV, the breakthroughs in storage predicted for 2019 appeared to be taking shape, not least in the U.S. where two big battery projects are set to be deployed in 2021.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration in July predicted the 1 GW of battery storage systems expected in the States this year would grow to 2.5 GW by 2023, helped along by Florida Power and Light’s 409 MW Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish and the initial, 129 MW phase of oil and gas company Helix Energy Solutions Inc’s 316 MW Ravenswood facility in Queens, New York.

That encouraging prediction came despite the findings of MIT researchers a month later that the cost of battery storage systems would have to fall almost 90% – to less than $20/kWh of capacity – to enable an entirely renewable energy power system. The number crunchers did point out, however, reducing by just 5% the amount of generation from solar and wind power – perhaps by methods such as demand-side management – would raise that storage project break-even figure to around $150/kWh. MIT folks also estimated, in August, global heating will affect the performance of solar panels, reducing yield by around 0.45% of each degree Celsius of global temperature rise.

Is gas a necessary evil?

The cost hurdle of energy storage was cited as one of the reasons why natural gas must remain a key back-up element to national grids, according to an interview given to pv magazine by Tom Vernon, MD of British company Statera, which operates both battery storage capacity and gas-fired peaking power stations in the U.K. It was a divisive article, which prompted convincing counter-claims from the proponents of storage solutions such as pumped hydro but it certainly added to the debate over the composition of the future energy mix.

The business case for battery storage was illustrated by the performance of the Tesla-supplied, 100 MW/129 MWh Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, which cost French owner Neoen €56 million (US$62.3 million) and had already repaid €8.1 million in its first six months of operation by providing grid services and power to the state government.

We also saw the flexible scale of battery storage during Q3, with products evening out renewable energy supply from individual household to national levels. Japanese electronics giant Panasonic unveiled its EverVolt lithium-ion household storage system at the Solar Power International trade show in Salt Lake City in September, with the U.S. model available in 5.7-34.2 kWh sizes.

Solid-state batteries

At the other end of the scale, Swiss manufacturer Leclanché won the contract to build a 35.6 MW/44.2 MWh solar-plus-storage plant near Basseterre to supply up to 30% of the total electricity needs of the island nation of St Kitts and Nevis.

And it was not all about lithium-ion, with Chinese manufacturer Ganfeng Lithium announcing plans in August to have a 100 MWh capacity pilot production line for solid state batteries up and running this year. With solid state devices offering higher energy density and fewer safety concerns than lithium, Ganfeng is hoping to beat rivals to commercial scale manufacturing in a bid to drive down the costs of the technology.

There was more movement in the inverter space in the third quarter, as ever-thinner margins forced Swiss brand ABB to exit the solar business by selling up to Italian company Fimer. The full details of the transaction were not disclosed although ABB did reveal it would shoulder costs of $470 million as part of the development. Filippo Carzaniga, head of family-owned Fimer, would only confirm that part of the deal related to historic warranty commitments and U.K. lobby group the Solar Trade Association subsequently passed on complaints from its members about product quality and the customer service offered by ABB.

Concentrating funds

R&D advances during the quarter included a discovery by scientists led by University of Tokyo academics that a tungsten disulfide semiconductor demonstrated the bulk photovolatic effect (BPVE) when rolled into a nanotube, potentially offering “an entire order of magnitude improvement in efficiency of BPVE” if it could be scaled up from those nano dimensions.

In September, the EU awarded €10.6 million to help a consortium of 16 research institutes and businesses set up a pilot production line for an ultra-high efficiency solar cell tech developed by Swiss start-up Insolight, which combines multi-junction cells and solar concentrator lenses and has demonstrated module efficiency of 29% – and a thumping 36% in the lab.

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In the same month, we heard about the invention by family business Saurea of a device which could convert solar energy directly into mechanical motion without the need for power electronics or batteries. With its developers claiming the invention can operate water pumps or ventilation systems for 20 years or more without maintenance, Saurea won the public vote in this year’s EDF Pulse awards.

Jinko’s pledge

That was just one example of the contribution our industry can make to a sustainable planet and pv magazine set out to offer recognition of the best practices in PV by launching our Sustainability Award in the third quarter.

Chinese giant JinkoSolar – which made headlines in the period with its pronouncement the age of single-sided solar panels on anything but rooftops was over – offered evidence it is heeding the call to manufacture more sustainably by signing The Climate Group’s RE100 pledge to source all its energy from renewables by 2025. As part of the commitment, Jinko said it would move to 70% renewable power by 2023, which would be no small achievement given the huge production capacity expansion plans announced by the business this year.

Verifiable sustainability

It is essential the clean energy transition is implemented, and fast. It must also be executed in the right way – taking environmental and social justice into consideration. pv magazine held a webinar about greenwashing versus real sustainability which also offered tips on how to become a true green leader. Listen to the recording and download the presentations here.

Staying in the world’s biggest solar market, the National Energy Administration announced the results of the first auction-determined solar subsidies to be allocated in China, with 3,921 projects approved at an average solar electricity tariff of $0.048/kWh and bids ranging from $0.0407-0.080 securing approval for 22.7 GW of new, subsidized solar generation capacity.

A China crisis?

It emerged the uncertainty which dogged the start of the year had seen only 11.4 GW of new capacity added in China in the first half and September brought the first expressions of doubt about a much-trailed solar gold rush towards the end of the year, expected to be prompted by confirmation of Beijing’s new subsidy regime.

Elsewhere in an eventful solar season, we were back to the halls of MIT again, where researchers proposed short-lived, 10-15 year solar panels could be a sustainable idea, provided they are designed with circular economy notions in mind. Academic peers from the University of Arizona also presented evidence growing some types of food crop in the shade of PV modules was not just feasible, but may actually offer bigger yields – both in agricultural and energy terms.

From India, which has shown significant interesting in adopting ‘agrivoltaics’, we learned of Indian Railways’ plan to install 1 GW of solar generation capacity by the end of March, and 5 GW in 2025 en route to running entirely on clean energy in 2029.

But there was also disturbing news from Japan in early September, as reports emerged that Kyocera’s 13.7 MW floating solar plant at the Yamakura Dam had caught fire after panels were stacked by the 120mph winds of Typhoon Faxai.

Evidence of catastrophic climate change is never too far from the headlines, it seems.

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

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