In short: The future of solar is coming, and it looks a lot like the past (with batteries). Silicon still rules the rooftop, but the solar-adjacent stuff that goes inside homes may revolutionize the way our lives work… in a few years. Batteries are still expensive, but the exciting thing for homeowners is: you don’t have to wait for economical batteries to install solar now.
Solar Power International (SPI) is an annual conference held by and for solar professionals every September in various places (this one was in Salt Lake City). It’s the perfect combination of a trade show and a policy summit, with a huge floor full of booths advertising the latest and greatest technologies and panel discussions, meet-ups, tweet-ups, podcasting, mixers, and block parties filled with everyone from the people who screw solar panels into your roof, the people who make the screws, and the people fighting for your right to install solar on your roof across the USA.
It stands to reason that there’s a lot of in-speak particular to the solar profession, but as people who write for an audience of homeowners, we think it’s important to tease out the trends that will matter to everyday people hidden among the booths and meeting rooms full of passionate professionals talking to each other.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we saw that you should know about if you’re considering solar:
- Solar panels are still panels
- …except when they’re not
- Everyone’s got a home battery to sell (and someday you’ll have one)
- Inclusivity and justice are important to the industry
- The future of solar is bright!
Solar panels are still panels
When we first wrote our article about how much energy a solar panel makes in 2012, we found the average 60-cell home solar panel generated 200 watts under full sun. In 2018, that number became 325. At SPI, companies like REC and LG were showcasing 60-cell panels capable of producing 380 watts or more under full sun.
For going on 70 years now, solar panels made with silicon have been the gold standard, and they still are. The reason is silicon is EVERYWHERE, making up 25% of the earth’s crust. It’s relatively easy to work with and relatively cheap to use for mass production of photovoltaic material.
…except when they’re not
Of course, silicon’s photovoltaic cousins were also on display at SPI. Sunflare had a big booth showing off its CIGS thin film products in flexible and roof shingle varieties, which looks pretty but offer about 40% less energy generation compared to monosilicon panels in the same amount of space on the rooftop.
CertainTeed displayed two ways to install its own solar “shingles,” which really just look like smaller panels mounted on the roof deck instead of on racks.
Here’s why non-traditional solar matters: for whatever reason, some people just don’t like the aesthetics of traditional silicon solar panels. This led solar manufacturers to develop all-black panels, racks and rails that hide under the all-black panels, and, finally, solar products that either look like traditional roofing materials or are designed to blend in.
The latter category is where these panel replacements fit it, and they look damn nice. But CIGS thin film is not an ideal solution for the home rooftop, with questions of low production per square foot, relatively high flammability, and higher cost. Still, with companies like Sunflare actively working on improvements, and the promise of thin, light, more highly-productive solar modules made from CIGS thin film could still be an important reality soon.
What does silicon’s solar dominance mean for you?
First, it means if you’re interested in home solar now, there’s no need to wait for the next big breakthrough. Silicon solar panels are affordable, durable, and the gold standard for making electricity on rooftops. Monosilicon solar cells might have a theoretical maximum efficiency, but the thing is: even if we hit that limit, modern solar panels are extremely economical.
Chances are if you need your panels replaced in 25 years, there will be something very similar in nearly the same shape ready to go on the roof in their place. Even if there is some massive breakthrough like multi-junction perovskite-impregnated cells, they will still probably look a lot like the panels millions of people get power from these days.
Second, it means that even small roofs can produce tons of power. The average home in the U.S. needs about 6.7 kilowatts (kW) of solar to provide all its power. Using 380-watt panels, the average home would need about 18.
Two rows of nine panels take up about 320 square feet on a roof. Something like 10.5 feet by 30 feet. Three rows of six panels each would be about 16 by 20 feet.
So again, silicon solar panels aren’t going anywhere, if a 16-by-20-foot chunk of them can make all the power the average American home needs in a year.
Everyone’s offering a home battery
Home batteries have technically “arrived” but the price point is still for early adopters (read: techno-savvy wealthy people).
Someday, every neighborhood may have its own local microgrid, where technology drives the storage, usage, and trading of solar electricity between neighbors—treating kilowatt-hours like so much cryptocurrency, unseen but ultra-efficient and automatically balanced to save/make you the most profits possible.
But for now, people just want a way to keep the lights on with solar during a blackout, and companies like LG, Panasonic, Sonnen, Sunrun and Tesla are ready to do it. The best news of all is: batteries added to a solar installation can qualify for the Federal Energy Tax Credit.
Yes! If you set up a home battery so it is charged only by the sun, you can claim a tax credit of up to 30% of the cost to install (the credit is set to drop to 26% for 2020, then 22% for 2021, ending as of 1/1/2022). Other state home battery incentives may exist near you. With some of these incentives and the tax credit, batteries can be a good financial move in certain states with either demand charges, time-of-use rates, or no net metering.
Because net metering still exists in most good solar states, the value of a home battery can usually not be measured in dollars and cents of savings. Instead, batteries are judged by their emotional value. What is it worth to you to have power in a blackout? What’s the value of knowing you’ll have lights on a dark and stormy night?
Batteries still cost too much for most people to find that value in them, but that shouldn’t stop you from thinking about solar! The tax credit will still apply to batteries added to a solar installation after-the-fact. So you could still benefit from batteries after they get cheaper or when incentives are available in your state.
Inclusivity and justice are important to the industry
One of the best parts of Solar Power International was the schedule of panel discussions between industry influencers, utility regulators, and journalists. We were able to attend a few of these panel discussions and came away with a renewed sense that the solar industry is committed to the ideals of inclusivity and justice.
One panel we attended, entitled “Unleashing Apollo’s Fire: State Policy, Political Organizing, and New Climate Politics,” was hosted by LA Times energy columnist Sammy Roth, and featured a discussion between four people working to expand solar at at the same time as recognizing the potential of solar to improve the lives of people in marginalized communities.
The conversation revolved around ways in which the industry can get involved to craft state-level legislation that positively affects the lives of not only solar owners but all people—especially marginalized communities that often don’t have a voice in government. SEIA VP Sean Gallagher and Vote Solar Executive Director Adam Browning was on hand to highlight recent successes in passing net metering laws and 100% Renewable Portfolio Standards in states around the country. Northwest solar advocate Joni Bosh added insight about bringing in stakeholders from disparate communities to achieve success in Washington state, while WE ACT Deputy Director Cecil Corbin-Mark highlighted his group’s success in fighting for environmental justice within the lawmaking process in New York and other places.
Another panel discussion highlighted the voices of some high-profile women in the industry. The talk was hosted by Andrea Luecke, the President and Executive Director of the Solar Foundation, and featured speeches by Solar Energy Industries Association board member Karla Loeb and American Association of Blacks in Energy President and CEO Paula Glover, who shared their experiences of careers spent working within various companies and industries—some that offer equality of opportunity and voice and some that created environments where women’s voices were marginalized.
With leaders like the people above, the solar industry is poised to continue to grow with a comprehensive vision of the good we can do in the world—both in regards to the natural environment and the economic and societal welfare of all people.
The future of solar is bright
It’s exciting to be part of an industry that is finally coming into its own. Commercial and Industrial installations are big business and will continue to expand all over the place, and even the notoriously conservative IEA says that worldwide solar capacity will more than double in the next 5 years.
On top of that, our industry is becoming smarter about ways to integrate solar power into our daily lives, such as coming up with batteries to store electricity from solar—which is generated during times of relatively low usage—and use it during periods of high demand, just as the sun goes down for the day. Some of those batteries will even be in electric school buses, which will reduce stress on the grid, remove harmful carcinogens from the air, and expand solar more quickly than could have been possible before.
Next year, we expect to see even more kinds of batteries, and in addition to those, we’ll see EV charging take center stage. With hundreds of thousands of EVs now on the road, and states now offering incentives for EV charging, we’re likely to see an explosion in EV chargers tied to solar arrays and batteries, for both public and private use.
Of course, whatever the future holds, Solar Power Rocks will have its finger on the pulse!
Last modified: October 29, 2019