A positive outlook
Much of the Intersolar conference focused on the global outlook of the industry during 2016 and using that perspective to predict on the future of solar and its applications. Looking back is informative: in 2016, the world built 76 GW of solar power, which amounted to a conservative turnover of around US$ 85 billion. Much of the market was in China; the US, Japan and India were also very big players.
The pricing of solar is steadily shrinking; as more solar PV is deployed, investors’ confidence increases and increased volume and efficiency means that capex costs are coming down. Although this is a fantastic outlook for solar – and has been the reason for the sector’s exponential growth over the last few years – it is changing the way in which solar is deployed and potentially sold.
China, for example, curtails around 15-20% of its solar power: in other words, the spot price for solar energy is 0, 20% of the time. The curtailment is factored into the financial model, but an obvious opportunity exists to harness and sell that energy as the penetration of solar increases. This has huge potential for utility battery storage, because businesses – or even individuals – can buy power for nothing at time of excess, and then sell in high times of need. Business opportunities also exist to sell ancillary services to the grid, such as frequency or voltage support.
This is great news for people and for industry as a whole – the future could easily see energy being extremely cheap, if not free. For businesses in energy, the business model will be built around power – storing the cheap energy produced by the sun, and selling it back to consumers when it is not shining. It’s likely that tariff structures might change to accommodate this, and that manufacturers and other energy-guzzlers are incentivised to ramp-up operations during the day, when the sun is shining and energy will be cheap.
Away from baseload
The outlook on heavy baseload and centralised grid energy infrastructure is not only becoming more unpopular, the general perception is that the forward costs of nuclear and coal could potentially put economies at risk. Because manufacturing competitiveness relies heavily on energy costs, countries with the lowest energy costs will thrive and those with expensive power will fail. As such, careful consideration needs to be made as to which energy sources to prioritise. Centralised, baseload-heavy grids are no longer required, competitive or appealing in the global market.
On the positive side of this, microgrid tech is an exciting prospect for countries with little or fragmented access to energy. It’s predicted that microgrids are going to be cheaper than fossil fuels, and Africa is a perfect market for microgrids because of its lack of fixed-line infrastructure. The potential for many more to have access to power is within reach and will not be expensive to deploy.
Storage, storage, storage
Storage was, predictably, one of the major topics at the conference. The general sentiment amongst technical experts is that for every unit of solar PV that is installed from now on, some storage must be included – even if it has to be subsidised at first. The inclusion of storage will be important to avoid large-scale solar PV becoming a nuisance to the grid or having large amounts of curtailment. If storage is incorporated with every PV system, the scale will also assist in bringing down the cost of lithium ion technology – and thus the price of batteries.
Storage came up for other technologies, too. Electric vehicles will increase the demand for electricity in coming years, an flexible charging will be important with on-board storage, so that they can buy electricity when it is cheapest and during peak PV hours. However, there is still much to be done in the way of making cars and their systems smarter.
Hydrogen and Methane were also a topic of discussion on the storage front, as both gases can be created from electricity using chemical processes. Exploring this link opens up the opportunity for long term seasonal and annual storage options which will be particularly useful in countries with large imbalance between summer and winter.
Smart and automated
In line with global technology trends, the Internet of Things is popping up in the energy world, too. Experts believe that IoT It will play a role in allowing ‘smartification’ of devices to use energy efficiently or use energy at specific times, depending on the cost. This links heavily with the substantial amount of ‘smart home tech’ that is being developed to automate and increase efficiency in households. Drones and robots, too, are a hot topic up for debate. From operations and cleaning to testing and surveillance, they are going to become a useful player in making solar PV more efficient.
SOLA will be hosting an information session on findings from Intersolar Europe on 29 June. If you would like to attend, please get in contact.