It seems like every other day there’s a story about new game-changing solar technologies. But while some of these may indeed turn out to be revolutionary, it’s questionable which, if any, will become viable, affordable options.
Maybe we don’t even need a technological revolution. Many in the solar industry point out that we already have the technology we need to deploy solar and other renewables on a large scale. I’ve said it myself. But the fact remains that there’s still room for improvement, and that technology will play an important role in the future of the solar industry.
When it comes to PV modules themselves, improvements are likely to be evolutionary, according to Dr. Wolfgang Herbst of Viridis.iQ and Dr Ralf Preu of the Fraunhoffer Institute. At a panel at Intersolar North America on the future of PV, they maintained that we shouldn’t underestimate the continuous improvements of standard PV technology. Efficiencies have improved to such an extent that further gains in this area are likely to be small and might take more effort than they’re worth.
That doesn’t mean new ideas aren’t coming along, but it remains to be seen which of those might take off.
What does seem poised to take off in the next few years, and what’s on everyone’s minds these days, is storage — which will be key to dealing with intermittency and high grid penetration. Intersolar North America featured over 200 energy storage exhibitions this year, showing off not just batteries but also inverters designed for storage.
So where are we with storage? At a press breakfast on the subject, while everyone agreed that storage is a top issue, opinions varied on which technologies will prevail — from lithium-ion to lead-acid to vanadium redox-flow, not to mention hybrid combinations — and how soon we’ll see large-scale use of energy storage.
Storage is still expensive. In many areas, like California, cost remains a barrier to mass adoption of PV storage systems. However, that may not be as true in places with high electricity prices like Japan or Hawaii. And storage will be essential sooner than later in emerging markets, many of which are in remote areas with no grid connectivity. The automotive industry is likely to be at the forefront of developing new storage technologies.
In areas where FITs are decreasing and PV costs are also coming down, consumers are moving from making money to saving money; with storage, they can consume the electricity they generate rather than needing to feed it into the grid. In these cases, storage may take off relatively soon.
Financing may become easier if customers who combine storage with PV installation are eligible for the Investment Tax Credit. And the same leasing and PPA mechanisms now used for PV are likely to develop for storage.
Vic Shao of Green Charge Networks had a different take than most on the storage situation: it’s not necessarily expensive, he said. In fact, he noted, when we focus on kilowatts rather than kilowatt-hours, energy storage can be affordable — at least in areas with high demand charges. While solar can reduce energy charges, storage, he pointed out, can reduce demand charges.
What do utilities think about storage? While they have been hostile to distributed solar, they may support distributed storage, since it will benefit them. For solar consumers, that would be good news: storage will enable further grid integration of PV systems and could also afford consumers some measure of energy independence.
As paramount as storage is, other technological elements will also play a big role. Battery storage will be more powerful in combination with intelligent energy management, which will enable further large-scale grid integration of PV systems.
Electric vehicles are likely to become part of an intelligent grid system, with their ability to be used for storage and to send power back to the grid when needed. And weather forecasting technology will provide an important balance to solar’s intermittency.
We’re just at the beginning of what could be a massive deployment of solar on a scale larger than most people might expect. Technology will be one of several key factors in making this happen.