The rise of solar: Two decades of sustainable energy solution

Studying the 20-year climb of solar energy.
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Created: 9/4/2023
The steady rise of solar energy

The past 20 years have seen explosive growth in the solar energy market, with global capacity growing from just 1.08 TWh in 2000 to a massive 1289 TWh in 2022. This growth marks a clear shift to sustainable thinking, with more recent increases likely due to widespread targets to reach net-zero emissions across the globe. 

But how did we get to where we are now? 

In this article, we explore the rise of solar over the past two decades, walking you through early innovations in modern solar power and some of the major advancements that have helped us achieve massive industry growth. We will also look at what the future might hold for solar as we move closer to ambitious emissions targets and aim for a sustainable future

The Dawn of Solar Energy (Early 2000s)

The rise of solar: Two decades of sustainable energy solution
The dawn of solar energy

At its core solar power is no new thing, with some of the biggest discoveries in solar technology such as photovoltaic reactions and solar cells reaching as far back as the 1800’s and early 1900’s. 

But it wasn't until the early 2000s that solar power really hit a turning point and started its meteoric rise to the widespread renewable energy source we know today. This turning point was marked as we hit a global installed solar capacity of 1000 megawatts. 

Sustainability, environmental impacts and reducing carbon emissions were all key factors that came into mainstream consciousness at the turn of the millennium, increasing interest in solar as an alternative power source to traditional fossil fuels. 

These concerns paired with technological advancements which facilitated developments in the affordability and efficiency of solar panels created a perfect storm that would see incredible industry growth in the coming years. 

Solar Technology Advancements

In 1960 Hoffman Electric managed to create a solar cell with a conversion efficiency of 14%. Since then advancements in cell structure and panel design have enabled a huge increase in the amount of sunlight that panels can capture. 

For example, in 2015 Solar Frontier achieved 17.8% efficiency, in 2015 SunPower achieved 22.8%, in 2016 NREL and Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) achieved 29.8% efficiency and in 2020 NREL researchers developed a six-junction III-V solar cell that can reach 47.1%. 

However, many of these more recent advancements are far from being applied to widescale production. The best panels widely available on the market today achieve an efficiency of around 24%, still a remarkable improvement on the average solar panel efficiency in 2000 (around 11%). 

Falling Costs and Widespread Adoption

The rise of solar: Two decades of sustainable energy solution
Governments have played an important role in solar energy implementation

Affordability has played a huge part in the widespread adoption of solar panels across the globe. Throughout the past 20 years improved production techniques, production at scale and even generous tax reductions have played a major part in reducing the overall cost of installing solar panels. 

One study found that the median installed price of a residential solar panel system equated to $12.87/W in 2000 but was just $3.84/W in 2021. The same report highlighted how long-term costs of installed solar panels have seen a median reduction of $0.4/W year-on-year. 

In many locations across the globe, this decrease in price has been paired with generous incentives from governments. 

For example, the UK government has rolled out two schemes since 2010. The first scheme (Feed-in Tariff (FIT)) provided participants with payments for all energy produced through set renewable sources (including solar) - regardless of how much energy they used themselves. This scheme was closed in 2019 and replaced by the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) which guaranteed participants payment for excess energy produced by renewable sources which was fed back into the grid. 

Solar Power on a Global Scale

The rise of solar: Two decades of sustainable energy solution
Solar Power Capacity

Solar power already plays a major part in the global energy mix, with some studies reporting that solar accounts for 4.3% of all energy produced globally. Although this doesn’t make solar the largest renewable producer, currently behind hydropower and wind, it is arguably the fastest-growing space with some of the most exciting technological advancements in the pipeline. 

Global superpowers are leading the way in solar, with China and the USA topping the chart for solar power capacity in 2021. Other countries with ideal conditions for solar power generation such as India, Australia and Spain also take a prominent position among the top solar power producers: 

  • China: 306,973 Megawatts 
  • United States: 95,209 Megawatts 
  • Japan: 74,191 Megawatts 
  • Germany: 58,461Megawatts 
  • India: 49,684 Megawatts 
  • Italy: 22,698 Megawatts 
  • Australia: 19,076 Megawatts 
  • South Korea: 18,161 Megawatts 
  • Vietnam: 16,660 Megawatts 
  • Spain: 15,952 Megawatts 

Solar Storage Solutions

The rise of solar: Two decades of sustainable energy solution
Homes powered with solar

One of the biggest challenges to the growth of solar power is closing the gap between energy demand and solar energy generation. These are typically contrasting, with demand peaking in the morning and evening as people get home from work and solar energy generation peaking in the middle of the day when the sun is most intense. 

Energy storage is one solution to this. 

In recent years, technology such as lithium-ion batteries has come on considerably. Since the early 2000s, several breakthroughs and advancements have helped progress the performance and capacity of battery technology. This has led to more recent widespread adoption of solar batteries as part of small-scale solar setups, it has also paved the way for exciting new projects such as plans for a solar battery farm with more than 150MW of solar energy storage in Kent, UK. 

In terms of the domestic market, the cost of solar batteries has reduced by nearly 80% over the last decade, so more and more homes are taking the step to add storage to their systems. 

In Conclusion

It is clear that the last 20 years have seen significant progress in the solar energy space. With advanced new technologies paving the way for widespread adoption and advancements in supporting technologies such as lithium-ion batteries making solar more affordable than ever. 

The recent history of solar makes one thing clear, we are likely to continue seeing explosive growth of solar around the globe as we collectively work towards reaching ambitious emission targets. 

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