The basic operation of solar panels is very simple: they absorb sunlight, a free and abundant resource, and convert it to electricity. Considering the high kilowatt-hour prices paid in Australia, solar power is a very attractive option for home and business owners alike.
Like any technology, solar panels have advantages and limitations. In addition to delivering low-cost electricity, they last very long because there are no moving parts subject to mechanical wear. However, solar panels require sunlight to operate, and cannot be counted on to deliver power on demand – that is, unless they are enhanced with an energy storage system.
Photovoltaic systems are the subject of ample research and innovation, and they can be expected to continue improving in the foreseeable future. This article summarises the main trends in solar technology.
As mentioned above, solar panels are limited by inflexible energy output due to their dependence on sunlight. However, batteries are becoming more reliable and affordable, and governments have started creating incentive programs to promote their use.
If a solar power system is equipped with a battery array of adequate capacity, there is no need to use its electricity output immediately. Instead, it can be stored and used at any time.
The concept of combining solar panels and batteries is not new, but two limitations were holding it back:
After the output of solar power systems becomes flexible, the next logical step is making it smart with information technologies. A virtual power plant is a great example of this, where multiple solar arrays and battery systems are controlled together to perform the same functions as a centralised power plant.
Artificial intelligence can maximise the benefits achieved with solar generation. This includes lowering the cost of electricity, but also functions that improve the power supply, such as voltage and frequency stabilisation.
Solar power systems have become much more affordable than one decade ago, and their price continues to drop. Solar farms with a cost below US$1 per watt have been completed in many parts of the world, and contracts have been signed for less than US$20/MWh (2 cents per kWh). According to industry experts, we could see technology prices as low as US$0.50 per watt within the next decade, and electricity prices below US$14/MWh (1.4 cents/kWh).
The combination of low-cost electricity, energy storage capacity and artificial intelligence can turn solar power into one of the dominant electricity sources over the next decades. We are also seeing a transition from centralised to distributed power generation, which benefits electricity consumers of all scales.