Looking back at 2016, it was a banner year for renewable energy in general and for solar power in particular. Although the political climate around the world was tumultuous and unpredictable throughout the year, solar deployments continued to make inroads everywhere from China to the U.S. Let's look at what some of the major trends in solar from 2016 mean for the industry's ongoing development in 2017 and beyond:
Solar is quickly becoming the cheapest source of power...
One of the biggest drivers of solar capacity growth has been the significant drops in the cost of the required infrastructure to capture and generate electricity from sunlight. In December 2016, the World Economic Forum found that in more than 30 countries, both solar and wind were at least as cheap as fossil fuels in terms of the costs of adding new capacity.
"Renewable energy has reached a tipping point," Michael Drexler, the leader of infrastructure and development investing at the WEF, said in a statement, according to Quartz. "It is not only a commercially viable option, but an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns."
Including utility, commercial and residential installations, fresh solar installations accounted for 11.2 gigawatts of additional capacity in 2016. In the U.S., there were approximately 125 new solar panels added every minute - a testament to the increasingly appealing economics of renewable power.
...but there's still plenty of room for it to become even less expensive
In certain regions, such as the Western states of Nevada and Arizona, solar is the least expensive option for a new power plant. But even with the current competitiveness of solar with other energy sources such as natural gas and coal, even cheaper deployments may be on the way.
Within a decade, solar could be only half the price per megawatt-hour of the electricity created by burning fossil fuels. This is already apparent in places like Chile, where the company Solarpack achieved an eye-popping price of only $29.1 per megawatt-hour - about 58 percent less than the estimated cost of a new natural gas plant.
The drop in solar panel prices has been a decades-long trend, and there are no signs that it will reverse itself in 2017. Statistics from Bloomberg and the Earth Policy Institute revealed that solar panel cost $101.05 per watt in 1975, but a mere $0.447 per watt by 2016. That represents a decrease of well over 200-fold. Even over a much shorter time period, the decrease is astonishing. Panels still cost an average of $1.50 in 2010.
Even more solar production is needed in 2017
One thing to look out for in 2017 will be how much closer overall renewable energy investment gets to the targets set in Paris during the creation of climate accords in late 2015. The target agreed upon at that meeting was $1 trillion, or almost four times the $286 billion that was spent on renewable power infrastructures in 2015.
Much more activity is needed in the buildout of solar around the world. One of the biggest impediments to growth is creating a trusted asset class for mainstream investors. There is also less regulatory standardization so far than there is for older energy sources, with a future that is unclear as governments change and alter their respective countries' existing environmental policies.
Look for more experimentation with solar panel materials in the years ahead
The demand for even greater total investment in solar and other renewables could spur renewed interest in different materials for solar panels other than the standard silicon. A shortage in silicon actually led to a temporary spike in solar panel prices in the late 2000s before the decades-long decline resumed.
One appealing candidate for the next big material is a perovskite layer. This mineral coating has the potential to dramatically boost the energy efficiency of solar panels - which, while, much improved since mass production began, is still a stumbling block to more effective solar deployments. In just a few years since testing began, its gains have already been comparable to what silicon achieved in its first 30 years of use in the solar industry. Commercial applications for perovskite could begin hitting the market in early 2017, according to WIRED.
One researcher at Cambridge University projected that adding perovskite to a solar panel could raise efficiency from 30 percent to 50 percent. Moreover, perovskite has the advantage of enabling thinner, lighter solar panel designs. The mineral itself can be made by simply mixing a few salts - costly high-temperature processing is not necessary - and creating an ink-like mixture that can be conveniently run through an inkjet printer.
Battery storage systems are set for liftoff
Batteries will be more important to utility solar deployments in 2017 and beyond. With the generation of solar power continuing to grow by leaps and bounds, utilities and households may look to store more of this electricity, especially in dense urban areas.
There are major challenges on this front, though. Writing for Greentech Media at the end of 2016, Barry Cinnamon noted that residential variants of these "behind-the-meter" deployments were still primitive, due to equipment costs and demand charges. Utility-scale BTM systems are a different matter, especially in states such as Hawaii and California in which solar infrastructures of all kinds are widespread.
Cinnamon predicted "rapid" growth of utility BTM in the U.S. throughout 2017. As batteries become central to solar deployments, the underlying technology may evolve as well. Lithium-ion is currently the mostly widely used rechargeable battery type. However, other types including sodium-sulfur batteries could also play a role, alongside old-fashioned load balancing mechanisms such as pumped storage systems.
Overall, 2017 is shaping up to be another big year for the evolution of solar technology and the growth of deployments. Trina Solar has the broad portfolio of solar panel solutions that you can utilize to ensure that your residence or business is lifted by the rising tide of the solar power revolution.
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