Can engineers help transform the full power potential of the sun?
Investing in a solar power system might involve a large upfront cost, but within months of construction commencing it will start to generate a predictable energy stream that will last for 30 years, with no exposure to fluctuating fuel prices, and only minimal operations and maintenance cost – something which no other electricity producing technology can claim. Add to this the absence of any sound generation, minimal visual intrusion, easy site evaluation, scalability and availability of standardised products, it’s no surprise that solar has become as popular as it has.
Solar power in the UK almost doubled during 2014 to around five gigawatts (GW), enough to power 1.5 million homes, in Germany it provided about 6% of the country’s electricity in 2014, and in the US the total at the end of last year reached almost 20GW of installed capacity. The Middle East region is aiming to generate 15GW from solar power by 2020.
Understanding all the options that solar can bring can help developers produce buildings that not only offer green credentials, but by thoughtful selection of technologies, can also be visually stunning and act as cost saving structural elements. Atkins’ designs for innovative solar integrated highway noise barriers challenge what solar systems have to look like and how clever design can also be functional – they certainly don’t have to be blue or black.
The almost “plug and play” nature of smaller solar systems also means that many electrical contractors offer installation as just another service – a mark that the technology truly has come of age. Around the world there is also growth in large scale multi-megawatt systems, and here we help clients with the new challenge of integrating these systems in to sometimes weak distribution networks.
So is there a catch?
The current low prices of solar systems may offer a boom time for installers and purchasers while it lasts, but it has also meant bust for those established suppliers who have gone out of business. Such an unstable market breeds uncertainty for all players, and importantly starves the industry of the profit needed to invest in further R&D. And in the rush to reduce cost alongside rapid deployment to grab falling subsidies, too often innovation is falling behind.
The rapid growth in solar also brings its own problem in the form of hotspots developing in areas of high penetration. This can be seen most notably in parts of Southern Germany where there is so much power produced from the many domestic solar installations, that in the middle of the day when power production is at a maximum there is a danger that the network will be overloaded. The solution is storage; growing the functionality of inverters to include domestic battery storage and simple load control is a promising contribution towards the development of the smart grid.
The hard work of getting solar technology to the price-performance position it is now in has been done. Getting the incentives and network control technology in place to fully realise the potential of this extraordinary energy source is something that will keep our economists and engineers busy for a little longer.