Solar Power Technologies: 5 of the Best Developments from 2021

2021 has been a turbulent year, but that’s not stopped the solar industry from advancing. Read on to find out more about the best solar power technology developments of the year.

Laura Rodríguez

28 Oct, 21

The solar energy industry is bouncing back after many projects were paused in 2020 during COVID-19 lockdowns. Up to 191GW of new PV capacity is expected to be installed around the world this year, up by 32.6% from 2020, according to BloombergNEF. Several countries have already exceeded their solar capacity targets for 2021, as governments set ambitious targets for decarbonization.

In what ways has the industry advanced this year, and how have the key trends from last year developed?

Five top solar power developments in 2021

Green hydrogen technology 

2021 saw a major rise in interest in green hydrogen. The concept has sparked the interest of companies across the world and gained popularity throughout the year.

In the UK, major companies like Octopus Energy and RES are planning to invest significantly in the development of green hydrogen production sites across the country. The aim of these sites is “to accelerate the decarbonization of industrial business”. Overall, the project, and similar ones too, aims to help the UK become more independent when it comes to its energy.

In Switzerland and Canada, innovative ways to produce green hydrogen. Their electrolysis technology means they can produce green hydrogen from any source of water, impressively including saltwater. EBH2 systems partnered with silicon solutions company HPQ and they’re in the process of producing green silicon materials.

Efficiency boosting

Solar cell and module developers continue to look for ways to maximize PV panel efficiencies. Chinese manufacturers JinkoSolar and LONGi have surpassed solar conversion efficiencies of 25% this year for their crystalline silicon technologies.

Scientists in Australia have developed a bifacial silicon solar cell with an efficiency of 24.3% on the front and 23.4% on the rear, for an effective output of around 29%. In December 2020, UK-based Oxford PV set a new efficiency record for its perovskite solar cells at 29.52%.

Oxford PV completed the construction of the manufacturing site for its perovskite-on-silicon tandem solar cells in July. The company now expects to start full commercial production in 2022, with an annual output capacity of 100 MW.

Perovskites were a key solar development we identified as an upcoming trend in 2020.

Thin-film technologies

Thin-film PV panels have continued to take a back seat to crystalline silicon, which dominates around 90% of the solar market. But US trade restrictions on imports from China – particularly with concerns about the production of polysilicon in Xinjiang – have created opportunities for thin-film producers.

US-based First Solar, which produces cadmium-telluride solar modules and panels, said in June that it is investing $689 million to build its third manufacturing plant in the US, expanding its domestic production capacity by 3.3GW. The plant will increase the company’s capacity targeting the utility-scale solar market in the US to 6GW. In July, the company announced that it is also building a 3.3GW plant in India, reporting demand for its CdTe technology at a record level.

Chinese manufacturer China National Building Materials (CNBM), which produces thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) panels, is expanding its production with the addition of 1GW of capacity for CdTe modules.

Agrivoltaics

Maximizing the use of agricultural land by installing solar panels over crops is a small but growing segment of the solar market. Solar power generation can enable farms to become self-sustaining, and the shading from solar panels can increase crop yields and decrease water consumption by reducing evaporation.

Several new projects in Europe have got underway this year, including:

  • A joint venture between solar services provider Greencells and Italian developer Renewable Consulting
  • German renewables group BayWa r.e. expanding its project in the Netherlands
  • Enel Green Power trialing pilot plants in southern Europe
  • Sapiens Energía’s projects in Spain to study the growth of tropical fruit under solar installations. 

Outside Europe, there are also projects underway in Japan, South Korea, and the US.

Asia and Africa accelerate their solar efforts 

With the rapid increase in urbanization and economic growth, Africa is increasing its use of renewable energy. This year saw African governments seek out ways to improve access to energy, as well as considerable interest from overseas investments.

Throughout the year, various solar plants and projects have commenced, especially so in South Africa, generating more clean energy to power homes. And, European investors, like Swedish company Trine that allow anyone to invest in solar, announced that they’ve crowdsourced enough to finance five solar projects including sites in Nairobi and Johannesburg.

As the world’s third-largest consumer of energy, India has seen considerable growth this year as they battled a horrendous journey with Covid-19.

Their bold goals have seen them supercharge their energy development as they aim to quadruple their renewable energy capacity by 2030. During the first 9 months of this year, the country added 8.8GW of solar energy. Going into 2022, India will be faced with the biggest demand for energy across the globe, with its huge uptake in industrialization, as well as increasing economy and population.

How have the top solar technologies mentioned below developed since 2020?

As we anticipated and have seen this year, floating PV installations have taken off, with projects targeting larger capacities than before. While the total global capacity of floating solar farms was 2.6GW at the end of 2020, there are now projects in some parts of the world with capacities in excess of 2GW. In South Korea, the government plans to add another 2.1GW across five dams in addition to the 2.1GW Saemangeum project, while Indonesia is planning the 2.2GW Duriangkang Reservoir project.

Insolight has started to apply its technology in the agrivoltaic sector, launching a pilot installation in Switzerland in July to test its Insolagrin solution, which replaces the protective tunnels used in agriculture with solar panels.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw delays to the pace of some developments, for example, Oxford PV had previously planned to launch its manufacturing facility in 2021. But delays in shipping equipment to the site and disruptions to work during lockdowns have pushed back the company’s expected full-scale ramp-up to 2022.

While the pandemic continues to have an impact on the global supply chain for the constriction industry, new BIPV products are emerging, indicating the sector is gearing up for expansion.

Top solar power developments in 2020

Here are the top developments we saw in 2020 that are likely to drive growth in the solar energy sector in the years to come.

Perovskite crystal coated panels

Perovskite is a lightweight calcium titanium oxide mineral, as well as a group of compounds that have the same type of crystal structure. Research has found that synthetic perovskite crystals are both more efficient and cheaper to produce than crystalline silicon, making them an exciting alternative for solar panel technology.

In fact, rather than displacing silicon, perovskite can be used to enhance it.

Oxford PV, a company spun out of Oxford University in the UK, is layering perovskite crystals over silicon to increase the conversion of sunlight into energy. While the efficiency of silicon PV cells has maxed out around 22%, Oxford PV’s layered cell has reached 27.3%. This increase in efficiency is key for the growth of renewable energy, as countries look for cost-effective ways to tackle climate change. Oxford PV plans to start selling perovskite solar panels in 2021 and several other start-ups are also developing products too.

Insolight panel coating

Swiss start-up Insolight has developed a technology that uses hexagonal lenses in the protective glass that coats solar panels to concentrate light and produce more energy. The technology has reached an efficiency of 30%, which translates to 40% more earnings for solar developers.

Insolight received funding over the summer to start manufacturing. The company plans to sell its first modules to the agriculture sector, where they can be installed in fields and on rooftops, including greenhouses. Its translucent modules allow light to filter through to crops below and protect them from extreme weather conditions, avoiding competition for land use between agriculture and solar energy.

Heterojunction technologies or SmartWire

Heterojunction technology (HJT) applies layers of thin-film silicon on both sides of a silicon solar cell. The layers increase the light conversion and can bring the efficiency of the silicon cell up to 25%.

The technology itself is not new, but the expiration of patents is allowing more manufacturers to start developing it with increased efficiencies. And, deployments are expected to grow over the coming years.

Floating solar farms

Large installations of floating photovoltaic panels generate high volumes of electricity at a lower cost than land-based solar farms. Plus, they have the advantage of not using land or requiring installation on buildings.

High temperatures reduce solar panel conversion rates, but research shows that the cooling effect of the surrounding water allows floating panels to produce up to 10% more electricity and slows module degradation. Floating PV systems are faster to install than land-based installations, and have been shown to reduce water evaporation while improving water quality.

A combination of falling costs, successful pilot projects showing the benefits of the technology, government support, and investor interest is now driving the rollout of commercial-scale installations. Global installations of floating solar capacity could rise from around 2GW currently to as much as 400GW, or around the same amount as the total solar capacity installed in the world up to 2017, according to the World Bank.

Building-integrated photovoltaics

The European Union’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive requires all new buildings in the region to be “nearly zero-energy” by the end of 2020. And, that the existing building stock that is energy inefficient, be improved in the coming decades.

To meet those targets, member states are turning to solar technologies to increase the proportion of clean energy that buildings consume. Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) extend beyond rooftop-mounted solar panels to incorporate photovoltaic properties into the building materials themselves.

This means roof tiles, window glass, facades, and shades all generate electricity to supply the building. BIPVs actually become part of the architecture, seamlessly blending into the building design and eliminating the need for a separate mounted solar panel system.

Of the different types of BIPVs, solar glass is of particular interest in hot climates where it is effective in reducing the amount of heat penetrating the windows, in turn reducing energy consumption for air conditioning. Demand is only set to grow as urban populations increase around the world and climate change lifts temperatures.

Solar cell fabrics

We’re seeing even more developments, such as high-efficiency III-V materials that can be used on car rooftops and solar fabrics that can be used in household furnishings and clothing.

With new technologies driving the efficiency of solar deployments, and carbon emissions targets providing an impetus for the growth in renewables, RatedPower can help your company design and optimize PV installations. 

If you are interested in knowing more about what we do, you should definitely dive deep in our website and request a demo of pvDesign.

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Laura Rodríguez

Business developer

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