As the manufacturing of solar technology steadily increases, it’s becoming less expensive and more efficient, benefitting the planet and the economy.
From house rooftops to office buildings, manufacturing facilities, and farmers’ fields, solar photovoltaic (PV) installations are everywhere, for plenty of reasons. No longer the niche of mad scientist-types and people craving off-the-grid energy independence, solar PV has made huge gains in the past two decades.
Transforming free sunlight into clean, non-polluting power, solar energy is not only rivalling electricity from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas but is a leader in states like oil-rich Texas.
In the mid-1950s, scientists at Bell Laboratories created the first working solar cells from silicon. Converting sunlight—namely photons—to electricity (voltage), these cells were initially used to power Vanguard and Sputnik satellites in space before finding applications in smaller devices like calculators and wristwatches. In 1963, Japan installed the world’s then-biggest photovoltaic array on a lighthouse, capable of 242 watts.
Solar on the rise
Described simply, silicon solar cells are assembled to make modules, which are connected to create solar installations or systems, which generate a higher voltage.
Covered with a durable transparent material such as tempered glass and framed with aluminum, these photovoltaic modules are sealed for protection from the weather before being mounted to rooftops and wired to electrical connections.
Like most new technologies, solar PVs have had their growing pains, becoming more efficient and compact today than in past versions. Early PV projects, such as the installation at Southern Arizona’s Papago Indian Reservation in 1978 by NASA, were 3.5 kilowatt systems providing residential electricity for 15 homes and pumping community well water.
In the following years, PV cells grew thinner by using materials like gallium arsenide and cadmium telluride with their greater conversion efficiency.
Although rooftop panels tend to be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of solar, there is much more to this renewable technology, including components and subcomponents like mounting hardware, wiring, inverters, controllers, chargers, and batteries needed to store electricity for later use, such as at night.
Benefits that matter
To meet the growing demand for solar panels, more manufacturers are needed to supply the product. This growth in the solar sector is not only benefitting the planet with renewable energy but creating economic benefits through job creation.
According to a report late last year from SEIA, the Solar Energy Industries Association, America’s solar sector is poised for massive growth as part of the White House’s Build Back Better (BBB) Plan. With the aim of meeting America’s climate goals and supporting millions of jobs, clean energy technology—including solar panels, wind turbine blades, and electric vehicles—will be implemented in the United States with American-sourced steel and other materials.
“The Build Back Better legislation will target incentives to grow domestic supply chains in solar, wind, and other critical industries in communities on the frontlines of the energy transition,” says the White House.
While President Joe Biden’s initial USD 3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan was scaled back to $1.7 trillion and morphed into the multi-billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), addressing climate change is still high on the list.
Could this be the most important climate legislation in American history? Investing in clean energy including solar could slash U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions up to 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Lower-cost renewable energy, combined with clean energy tax credits, will see prices for solar and other green technologies maintain their decline.
Plenty new under the sun
Under former president Donald Trump, a trade war with China and 30 percent tariffs on foreign-made solar panels saw the sector sustain at least 20,000 job losses in the U.S. But prior to the Trump administration, 2016 was (until then) a record year for solar energy in America.
Recently, however, despite job losses and shelved projects, the industry has made significant gains, especially under the influence of rapidly emerging new technologies.
On the solar panel side, Australian scientists developed an efficient bifacial silicon solar cell that achieves an effective 29 percent output. In China, manufacturers LONGi and JinkoSolar recently created panels made with crystalline silicon, exceeding solar conversion efficiencies of 25 percent, a significant technological breakthrough.
Although China remains the biggest world player in solar manufacturing, controlling about 97 percent of PV manufacturing (pre- and post-cell processes), other countries are challenging its dominance, including India.
Emerging as one of the largest solar PV deployers in the past decade, India is seeing greater interest as a manufacturing hub for solar cells, wafers, modules, and polysilicon, thanks to government-supported solar initiatives. Launching the National Solar Mission in 2010, a renewable 450 GW energy target in 2020, and the recently announced target of 500 GW of non-fossil fuel energy by 2030, and becoming carbon-neutral by 2070, solar module manufacturing is likely to skyrocket in the coming years.
The past year has seen the rise of solar panel installations not only on rooftops but over crops, thanks to agrivoltaics.
Agrivoltaics, also called agrisolar, enable farming land to be double-purposed for both farming and generating solar photovoltaic energy. With the technology already implemented in some U.S. states such as Maine, Europe is embracing the concept through recent projects in Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries.
Seen as a win-win by the solar sector, agrivoltaics allow lands to remain working—with animals grazing under solar panels—while seeing farmers diversify their income.
With no reason to limit the technology to land, the past few months have also seen great interest in floating solar farms. Quicker to install than rooftop panels, floating solar farms produce up to 10 percent more electricity than their land-based counterparts, thanks to the cooling effects of water. While the cost of floating panels is about 10 to 15 percent more than land-based solar, the advantage of panels on water is that systems degrade more slowly.
As materials evolve, solar will advance toward other unique applications. While solar panels will remain, other technologies are underway, including building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) and solar cell fabrics. Much like floating solar, these innovations result from out-of-the-box thinking.
Seamlessly integrated into structures, BIPVs are not attached to roofs like traditional solar panels, but are parts of roofs, façades, and windows, serving as generating products, protecting buildings from noise and weather, and acting as a layer of insulation.
Unlike rigid PV cells, solar cell fabrics use thin cells which can be integrated into many textiles, from clothing to umbrellas and awnings. About 10 times lighter than regular solar panels, solar fabric lasts longer and doesn’t contain toxic materials. While solar fabric captures less energy than regular panels, it is proving more effective at collecting energy, even on overcast days.
The world is at a crossroads. On one hand, there is a push toward a carbon-reduced future. On the other, we are looking to reduce our dependency on foreign oil and gas. As we move toward more energy-efficient ways of powering the planet, solar is emerging as the clear winner in the world of sustainable energy, surpassing wind, water power, geothermal, and biomass.