Solar power: The golden bullet for a clean and sustainable energy future. By Steve Springett
When Britain’s most severe blackout in more than a decade caused rush hour travel disruption two weeks ago [at time of writing], it somewhat ironically shone a spotlight on our energy usage. The national equivalent of ‘flicking the off switch’ demonstrated that for all the huff and bluster over renewable energy, our national critical infrastructure is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels and a long way away from being clean.
While blackouts are rare these days, the recent incident is set in the backdrop of the net zero target – that the UK will be completely carbon neutral by 2050. There are convincing arguments on either side as to whether this vision will become a reality. Some see it as a pipe dream while others believe this target does not go far enough, quickly enough. Either way, to get anywhere near achieving it, how we harness solar power is going to be a major factor.
The global power of the sun
One of the major arguments against solar power in the UK is the weather. And, having just seen a spate of flood warnings throughout the country in the middle of Summer, it’s not hard to see why. But that is a misnomer. Solar power generation relies on daylight, not sunlight and while the UK may not have the climate of the Mediterranean, it does not mean solar is a non-starter.
The sun emits enough power onto Earth each second to satisfy the entire human energy demand for over two hours. However, as of 2018, less than two per cent of the world’s energy came from solar. Even this meagre solar usage, though, is an improvement over the previous two decades, as the amount of power collected from solar energy worldwide increased over 300-fold from 2000 to 2019. And this is only going in one direction.
According to research from energy consultant Wood Mackenzie, solar panel installations will reach a record high in 2020 as more countries adopt the technology and costs continue to fall. A study published in the journal Nature Energy found that, in just 25 years, China has gone from having no solar panels to at least 100 per cent more than any other country, including the world’s largest solar farm in the Tengger Desert.
Sunny outlook for the UK
Despite dissenting voices around the suitability of solar power in the UK, we’ve seen multiple schemes and incentives to fuel demand. The Feed in Tariff (FiT) launched in 2010 with big financial incentives for those creating energy using solar. This recently closed and has been replaced with the Smart Export Guarantee, which means that, from January 2020, energy suppliers have to pay people for what they export to the grid. Elsewhere, a £1 billion government initiative recently launched that will see low-income homes across England and Wales getting free solar panels.
We’re also seeing innovative and forward thinking solar companies delivering new ways to capture and store the excess solar energy people generate during the day rather than letting it go to waste. It means energy can be used at the times when it is most needed and can already, on a typical day, power a home with 100 per cent solar energy. Although battery costs are still relatively expensive and not yet a mass market product, solar plus battery is a compelling post FiT solution. Not only is the pairing proven to be economical in the long-term through increasing the self-sustainability of a home as energy prices increase year on year, but it’s an environmental gamechanger in a consumer’s ability to produce clean power from renewables themselves that reduces their need for ‘grid energy’.
Growth by innovation
But solar is arguably much more chicken and egg than any other renewable. Uptake, investment and interest is reliant on efficiencies, innovations and reductions in cost in a self-perpetuating cycle. Thankfully the news here is also promising. Support and subsidies to date have seen the costs of solar panels fall dramatically. The technological advances in the solar energy sector have made solar panels much more efficient than ever before and this has directly contributed to the falling cost of solar energy up to 50 per cent over the past decade.
Efforts continue to focus on making the life cycle of solar technology as sustainable as its mode of energy generation. Researchers at the University of Sheffield recently unveiled a new type of solar cell featuring a surface embossed with tiny grooves with different electrical contacts, which is said to cut down on manufacturing costs and increase electrical conversion efficiency. Meanwhile, a new form of material overlaid on silicon solar cells, developed by an Oxfordbased team, has demonstrated record efficiency.
Collaborating for a clean transport future
These developments are critical given the increasing role solar power is required to play when it comes to reducing the dependency on buying energy and easing peak pressure on the grid. This will be particularly acute if the projections on electric vehicle (EV) growth and clean transport infrastructure are to be realised. Embedded solar and storage will be a key method of avoiding expensive grid connection upgrades to cope with the extra power demand from having hundreds of EV chargers on some commercial sites, for instance fleets or car parks. Thankfully, we’re seeing signs of collaboration between public and private enterprise to bring this vision to life.
The Department for Transport (DfT) recently awarded multi-million-pound funding to trials of solar used in conjunction with railways, roads and footways. Elsewhere there are plans to build a fleet of solar farms alongside the route of the controversial HS2 line in a bid to supply it with renewable power. Meanwhile, two projects in Buckinghamshire and Central Bedfordshire have received £4.49 million and £1.05 million respectively to trial solar roads and footways.
A bright future?
On the surface, it’s a promising outlook. The International Energy Agency says that solar could surpass fossil fuels, wind and hydro by 2050 to be the world’s largest energy source. Technology is improving year on year, demand is growing, as are applications and consumer appetite for clean, green and sustainable energy has arguably never been higher. But it is vital the solar industry does not rest on its laurels. Stakeholders of government, industry and business have a mandate from the world’s public to create a better, cleaner world for everyone. To do that, solar power needs to be the world’s primary source of energy.
Steve Springett is chief product officer, Tonik Energy, a UK renewable energy company responding to the slow pace of change by the ‘big-six’ by creating the easiest pathways for homes and businesses to accessing renewable energy. By accelerating the uptake of microgeneration, battery storage and electric vehicle charging infrastructure, Tonik Energy is on a mission to reduce the cost of energy to people and the planet.
For further information please visit: www.tonikenergy.com