The associated fee of turning sunlight into electricity has fallen greater than 90% during the last decade. Solar is now the most cost effective type of newly built energy generation.
Job done? Not quite.
Right away, solar works well at cost-competitive prices and can assist us cut emissions significantly. But with lower than 5% of the world’s electricity delivered by solar, we are only initially.
The solar panels of 2022 are just like the chunky mobile phones of the Nineties. Rather more is feasible with the identical underlying technology.
Australia is prone to play a key role in global progress. We’ve been on the forefront of solar technology development and deployment for a long time. We’ve held the performance record for 30 of the last 40 years for silicon solar cells. We now have more solar deployed per capita than another OECD country, meeting nearly 15% of our electricity needs. Greater than 80% of the world’s recent solar panels depend on the PERC cell, a technology developed in Australia.
So what’s next for solar? Tons of of researchers across Australia are focused on two goals: cutting costs even further and generating probably the most electricity possible out of incoming sunlight.
Why does solar need to enhance?
Solar has the potential to rework our industries, transport and the way in which we live—if we push the technology so far as it will probably go.
Ultra-cheap electricity unlocks huge possibilities, from turning water into green hydrogen to function energy storage or to make use of in industrial processes, through to electrifying transport, energy systems and every part else we use fossil fuels for.
Last 12 months, Australia’s renewable energy agency laid out its vision for ultra low-cost solar. The goal is ambitious but achievable.
By 2030, the agency wants business solar cells to hit 30% efficiency, up from 22% today. It wants large scale full system costs (panels, inverters and transmission) to fall by 50% to 30 cents per watt.
It’ll take intensive research. Greater than 250 Australian researchers are working towards these goals on the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, a collaboration between six universities and the CSIRO.
Can silicon really carry on giving?
Solar cells convert sunlight into electricity with no moving parts. When sunlight hits silicon—the fabric commonly utilized in solar cells—its energy frees up an electron capable of move inside the material, just as electrons move in wires or batteries.
The solar panels in your roof probably began as desert sand, melted all the way down to silica, refined into silicon and refined again to form 99.999% pure polysilicon. This versatile material has been at the center of solar’s success for a long time. Importantly, it’s saleable—from the dimensions of a pin head to arrays covering square kilometers.
But to get absolutely the maximum of sunlight falling on these panels, we must transcend silicon. We will’t reach efficiencies of 30% with silicon alone.
Meet the tandem cell—a solar sandwich. Because silicon can only absorb a maximum of 34% of visible light, researchers are focused on adding layers of other materials to capture different wavelengths of sunshine.
Perovskites are one option. This family of materials might be printed or coated from a liquid source, making them low-cost to process. Once we stack this material atop silicon, we see a significant jump within the solar cell efficiency.
While promising, there are still problems to iron out—specifically, ensuring perovskites can last the 20 plus years we’ve come to expect from silicon panels.
Researchers are also other materials, akin to polymers and chalcogenides, a bunch of common minerals including sulfides which have shown promise in thin, flexible solar cells.
Any recent material must not only work well at converting sunlight to electrons, but be abundant within the earth’s crust, available at low price and stable enough to make sure long lifetimes. Chalcogenides, for instance, are fabricated from common elements akin to copper, tin, zinc and sulfur.
It might pay enormous dividends if we will get to 30% efficiency. The prices of building a big solar farm could be slashed. With more efficient solar cells, you wish fewer panels and fewer land for a similar power output.
It might also make fossil fuels even less competitive. Coal-fired power and automotive engines are around 33–35% efficient, meaning a lot of the energy embodied in fossil fuels is definitely lost as heat and noise. You furthermore mght must pay to repeatedly supply the fuel. Solar and wind come without charge when you’ve established the plant.
How can we cut costs further?
At present, the fee of power from recent solar in Australia is A$50 per megawatt hour. (Black coal is around $100/Mwh.) That’s in accordance with the CSIRO’s 2021–22 assessment of energy costs.
By 2030, our renewable energy agency desires to slash that to simply $15/Mwh, or 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Solar energy at this cost—coupled with storage—would deliver low-cost, reliable power 24/7.
Costs will come down as we increase efficiency of the solar cells, because the modules last more, and as we give you less expensive ways to fabricate and deploy the solar technologies.
Ultra-low-cost solar electricity will probably be transformative, allowing Australia to construct recent capability in current and emerging industries, akin to turning hydrogen and ammonia into fuel sources, the green processing of steel and aluminum and even the processing of silicon itself, so we will make more solar panels.
Even with today’s technology, demand for solar is predicted to double and double again in the following ten years. Meaning there will even be a must work out how the solar industry can grow sustainably—and the best way to recycle solar panels as early solar panels reach the top of their useful lifetimes and want renewing.
Australian innovation kickstarted the solar boom. As climate change intensifies—and the necessity for clean, locally produced energy grows—the sun-drenched country may once more have the ability to assist speed up the world’s transition away from fossil fuels.
This text was written by Renate Egan — Professor, UNSW Lead, Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics, UNSW Sydney