Why sunnier days appear to be ahead for the solar energy sector
A combination of factors bodes well for an uptick in installations
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One of the recent concerns of those cheering on the renewables industry has been the hiccups being experienced by the solar industry. First, Covid-induced disruptions and a trade dispute with China slowed the import of important raw materials as well as finished panels. Then, disputes arose in several states — most notably California and Florida — over subsidies and other perks given to homeowners who installed solar panels on and around their homes. These factors and more resulted in a 23% drop in total installations between 2021 and 2022, according to a report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and research firm Wood Mackenzie, with the utility-scale arena being particularly hard-hit by a 40% reduction.
The future, though, appears to look brighter for the sector. First, a third-quarter report by the American Clean Power Association reveals a pent-up demand that, if realized, could lead to an explosion of installations. Second, the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act signed into law last August is poised to unleash billions of dollars in incentives. Third, resolutions about rooftop solar subsidies are in the works in many places, thus removing uncertainty. And finally, the temperature of the dispute with China appears to be dropping, with the Biden administration waiving new tariffs until 2024 amid negotiations aided by China’s keenness to reverse an economic downturn caused in part by its extreme anti-Covid measures.
And then, on the horizon, there are technological breakthroughs that could send solar power output into the stratosphere. In particular, researchers at Martin Luther University (MLU) in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, say they have found a way to increase the photovoltaic effect of ferroelectric crystals by a factor of 1,000 if three different materials — barium titanate, strontium titanate and calcium titanate — are arranged periodically in a lattice, according to their report in the journal Science Advances.
“Ferroelectric means that the material has spatially separated positive and negative charges,” explained physicist Akash Bhatnagar from MLU’s Centre for Innovation Competence. “The charge separation leads to an asymmetric structure that enables electricity to be generated from light,” adding that, unlike silicon, ferroelectric crystals do not require a so-called p-n junction to create a photovoltaic effect.
Further research must now be done to find out exactly what causes the outstanding photoelectric effect, with Bhatnagar confident that the potential demonstrated by the new concept can be used for practical applications.
For the solar sector, sunny days, apparently, are here again.
(A native of England, veteran journalist Matthew Diebel has worked at NBC News, Time, USA Today and News Corp., among other organizations. Having spent much of his childhood next to one of the world's fastest bodies of water, he is particularly interested in tidal energy.)