The rise and rise of solar power
24 June 2015
The race is on: solar power is hot on the heels of conventional energy generation, claims Vlatko Vlatkovic.
In a world with fast growing energy demands, solar power can make a difference. Following a surge in technology innovation that is seeing its energy density increase and its costs decrease in equal measure, solar power is set for a blaze of glory as the race with conventional energy continues to get ever closer.
Energy consultants Wood Mackenzie predict that within five years, solar will be fully competitive with traditional sources of energy in 19 states in the US due to the falling cost of solar modules, with similar transformations to the energy market as we are currently seeing with shale. Further afield, significant investments in solar power have recently been made in markets such as China, Europe, India and Japan.
Last year also saw a huge expansion of the solar industry in the Middle East. According to a report published by the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), from 2006 – 2013 only 70MW of solar photovoltaic system (PV) projects were awarded across the region. In 2014 alone, that figure stood at 287MW – a fourfold increase.
There are two main factors fuelling this rise of solar projects worldwide. One is the increased finance and investment in the industry. Earlier this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that global investment in clean energy rose 16% to $310billion in 2014, with solar projects attracting over half of the total funding.
The second is the dramatic drop in the cost of solar systems, which is expected to continue, both at utility scale and on rooftops. According to RenewEconomy, Solar PV module costs have fallen by 75 per cent since the end of 2009 and the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV has fallen 50 per cent since 2010. As a result of this reduction, solar energy is fast becoming comparable with conventional energy sources.
Technology plays an undeniable role in driving the global progress of solar forwards, whether that’s through the use of new materials or new applications such as solar paint for example. But perhaps the biggest influencing factor in determining the success of solar is not simply the reduced cost of the panels, but the efficiency of solar power – particularly at utility scale.
Converting the energy captured by solar panels to supply the electricity grid is a hugely important part of the process. Implementing the right inverter technology is therefore a key concern for solar plant operators.
Inverter technology is advancing at a rapid pace and is making substantial contributions to lowering the cost of production across North America and the UK, for example. The latest innovations in inverter technology see inverters operating at 1.5kVDC with up to 4MW power rating.
The increased voltage enables a higher concentration of power in the same farm footprint resulting in improved economics. The system power losses are reduced and the overall plant costs are reduced. In fact, the use of 1500V has reduced system costs by up to 3% at farm level and enabled up to $5.8 million in CAPEX savings for a 200 MW PV park project on the African continent.
With four times as much power as a conventional 1MW inverter, four inverters can be replaced by one, resulting in OPEX savings of up to 30% and significant CAPEX savings due to the need for fewer inverter stations, resulting in lower installation and maintenance costs.
This trend towards a 1.5kV inverter marks a shift in the solar industry. It is transforming the cost, scale and efficiency of solar power conversion. GE was first to the market with the 1.5kV solar inverter and is equipping global projects with the high voltage inverters; the first 1.5kV systems were installed by BELECTRIC in Germany in 2012 using inverters developed by GE.
As solar power continues to take a more central role in the global energy mix, the debate around the competitiveness of solar energy continues apace. Technologies that increase the operational efficiency of solar energy at utility scale will continue to be the key driver in this race.
Vlatko Vlatkovic is chief engineering officer, GE Power Conversion