January 29, 2024

What is the future of solar power in 2024 and beyond?

earth in space with solar panels popping up out of different continents

The power of the sun in the palms of our hands…

Solar panels, with their gleaming plated surfaces and their mind-bending ability to create electricity from seemingly nothing, have always seemed to cross that threshold between reality and science fiction.

This is a technology that makes us feel that the future is already upon us, and yet, even as shimmering solar farms and sun-powered water heaters rise up across the landscape, we have taken only our first steps on our journey into a hopeful green future.

In 2023 solar power produced 413 gigawatts of energy, far exceeding any previous record for solar energy production. In 2024, that number is only going to increase as this market grows to become the dominant energy infrastructure on the planet.

So let's get into it, what does the future hold for the burgeoning solar industry?

Key points summary

  • The IEA Report 2023 shows that solar prices are dropping largely due to the continued investment of China and G20 countries.
  • In 2023 many major nations put in green policies, initiatives designed to increase solar infrastructure.
  • The US and UK elections and the impact of global conflicts could affect the investment and growth of the solar industry.
  • Breakthroughs in solar technology are already being felt but this will become more evident in 2024, with big efficiency and capacity gains to be found.

The current state of solar energy

Before we can look forward, we first need to look back and reflect on how the solar industry has developed over the past year.

Headline facts and statistics on global solar power

These illuminating statistics from the IEA Report 2023 on the state of the solar industry show how rapidly solar is growing worldwide.

Here are some of the key developments from 2023.

  • Solar and wind now produce energy at a lower cost than new coal and gas plants.
  • G20 countries account for almost 90% of global renewable power capacity.
  • In 2023, the prices of solar panels dropped by 50% compared to the previous year.
  • Factories made three times as many solar panels in 2023 as they did in 2021.
  • In 2023, China commissioned as much solar PV as the entire world in 2022.

Policy & Economic Developments in 2023

In 2023 some steps were taken in the right direction as national governments continued to develop policies aimed at promoting the use of solar energy.

Looking at a few of the major global powers, here are some of the measures that were implemented and developed.

United States

Inflation Reduction Act: The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, continued to make headlines in 2023 for its impact on solar energy.

The act extended and enhanced federal tax credits for solar installations, including a 30% tax credit for residential solar systems.

Community Solar Initiatives: Several states, including New York and California, expanded their community solar programs, allowing residents who cannot install solar panels on their properties to buy or lease a portion of a community solar project and receive credits on their electricity bills.

European Union

Fit for 55 Package: As part of the EU's ambitious climate policy framework, the "Fit for 55" package aimed to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

In 2023, this included significant funding and support for solar energy projects, including large-scale solar farms and rooftop solar installations.

Solar Rooftop Mandate: Some EU countries moved forward with legislation requiring new buildings to have solar panels installed.

For example, France mandated the installation of solar panels on all new commercial parking lots.

China

Solar Capacity Expansion: China, announced further investments to increase its solar capacity. This included the construction of massive new solar farms in desert regions and policies to encourage the integration of solar energy into the national grid.

Subsidies for Solar Technology: The Chinese government continued to offer subsidies for solar technology research and development, aiming to reduce the cost of solar panels and increase their efficiency.

India

National Solar Mission: As part of its National Solar Mission, India continued to expand its solar capacity with large-scale solar projects. The government also promoted rooftop solar installations through subsidies and incentives.

International Solar Alliance (ISA): India hosted several international meetings and conferences in 2023 to promote solar energy and facilitate collaboration between member countries.

Australia

Solar Rebate Programs: In 2023, various states in Australia offered rebate programs to reduce the upfront cost of installing solar panels for households and businesses.

Virtual Power Plants: Initiatives to create virtual power plants (VPPs) were promoted. These VPPs integrate residential solar systems and battery storage to provide grid services and reduce reliance on traditional power plants.

Predictions for the Solar Industry in 2024

Making predictions about anything is always difficult to do as there are so many different factors involved in any outcome.

This is particularly true for the solar industry, which, as a global market, is heavily influenced by developments across the whole planet.

That being said, certain outcomes seem likely based on recent trends in how solar power is developing.

According to data from Ember, which goes back to 2000, solar capacity has increased by an average of 37% per year, over the last 22 years, doubling every 2.2 years. In 2023 we hit 413 gigawatts, and if this trend continues we could hit 565 GW in 2024.

At this rate of growth, 2024 will see us reach the world's second terawatt of solar installations. To put this in perspective, the first global terawatt took 40 years to achieve.

On the ground, this means we can expect to see far more solar panels appearing, both in solar farms and on new build housing and in other infrastructure. This will be most evident in China who were responsible for 240 gigawatts over the previous year.

Political Impact on solar panel development

Changes in the political landscape on a global and national level can have a significant impact on green policies, affecting the immediate and long-term future of solar power.

In 2024 both the UK and the US are set to have their national elections which could lead to the election of a new president and prime minister in the two respective countries.

In the UK it looks likely that a new labour government will come into power which may result in a shift towards more green policies.

Although the current conservative government put in place several ambitious targets and initiatives such as the commitment to net 0 by 2050, they also pushed back their policy on removing petrol and diesel cars, delaying it by five years.

A Labour government could further promote green developments including those in solar energy.

In the US, President Biden faces opposition from former president Donald Trump in the race for the Whitehouse. While in office, Trump tended to prioritise economic growth and energy independence over green initiatives, often favouring fossil fuels.

In particular, in 2018, Trump imposed tariffs on imported solar panels which were set at 30%. This raised the cost of solar projects in the U.S. and hindered the growth of the solar market.

If Trump wins the election in 2024 we could see a move away from solar power in the US and a greater focus on fossil fuels. This could significantly affect the cost of solar installations which, following current trends, are expected to decrease in cost but could go up with Trump in power.

Global conflicts

During 2023 the war between Russia and Ukraine had a significant impact on the energy market.

Russia is a major producer of raw materials like nickel and palladium, which are used in the production of solar panels and batteries. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has produced disruptions in these supply chains, affecting the production and cost of solar products.

This conflict also forced Europe to move away from its reliance on Russian gas helping to promote investment in solar power.

In 2024 if the Russia-Ukraine conflict concludes, this may lead to the increased production of solar panels - if Russian trade with Europe recommences. It may also lead to a reduction in the cost of gas which could affect the prices of solar.

Any further global conflicts have the potential to disrupt trade routes and put pressure on supply chains, raising costs.

Technology

In 2023 we saw a breakthrough in a number of areas of solar technology.

In 2024 these technologies will continue to develop and we can expect to see them begin to filter into the general market, increasing the rate of solar adoption.

Efficient Next-Generation Solar Panels

The University of Surrey announced a breakthrough in the mass production of next-generation perovskite solar cells, which are cheaper and lighter than traditional silicon cells. This development marks a significant step toward making these high-efficiency cells more commercially viable.

Breakthrough in Solar Panel Efficiency

Chinese company LONGi, the world’s biggest producer of solar cells, announced they had reached a 33.5% efficiency in their research, surpassing the current maximum efficiency level for silicon-only solar cells, which is around 24.5% to 27%.

Manufacture of Photovoltaic Cells

The University of Ottawa achieved a world-first in manufacturing back-contact micrometric photovoltaic cells. This revolutionary breakthrough could significantly impact the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of solar cells.

Super-Efficient Solar Cells

MIT Technology Review has highlighted the rapid advancements in perovskite tandem solar cells. These cells have already exceeded 33% efficiency in the lab, and their deployment on a significant scale could produce more electricity at a lower cost.

All of these improvements in efficiency and availability will lead to cheaper more widely available products on the market. In 2024 more and more people will begin considering solar as a viable option and we will see an increase in the purchase of solar products.

Solar Energy Industry Trends For 2024

In 2023 we saw a number of trends developing in the solar industry. These included falling prices, new technological innovations and a still increasing number of installations.

In 2024 we can expect to see many of these trends continue to build as new developments also join the market.

Here are some of the major trends that we expect to see taking off in 2024.

Falling cost of solar panels and installations

The cost of solar panels has been steadily falling since they first came on the market.

Most data sets measure this cost by dollars per kilowatt. This allows for comparison between different types of solar panels as the measure takes into account efficiency.

If a solar panel is very efficient and produces more energy, then that offsets against its cost, bringing its dollar-per-kilowatt value down (aka it’s better value for money).

Based on data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) the falling cost of solar panels has occurred at an average of 16% per year since 2010.

If we extrapolate this data forward into 2024, then we could see the cost of some solar panels reach as low as 0.5 $/W.

This should be taken with a pinch of salt however, as the rate of decrease is dropping by an average of 66% per year, meaning by 2024 we’re likely to see only a small reduction in prices and by 2026 possibly no decrease at all. However, this is just a postulation and doesn’t take into account market factors, only trends in the data.

One thing we can be fairly certain about is that prices will decrease further in 2024, making solar panels even more affordable and widely adopted.

Increasing solar storage capacity

One of the main limitations of solar energy is that it is dependent on environmental factors, making it temperamental. It is also far more difficult to store than coal, gas or oil.

To address this issue the renewable energy industry has been developing better methods for storing and releasing energy when produced at peak capacity. The most obvious example of this technology is lithium-ion Batteries. These are widely used due to their high energy density and long lifespan but other batteries are also entering the market.

We can expect this technology to continue to develop in 2024 with increases in capacity and efficiency as well as a continued lower of prices a trend we saw throughout 2023.

Other storage methods such as Lead-Acid and Flow Batteries, Molten Salt Storage, Hydrogen Storage and Supercapacitors will all become more established in 2024.

Improving solar infrastructure in developing countries

Solar energy has the power to change the landscape in developing countries, allowing poor communities to gain energy independence.

Policies such as Nigeria's Solar Power Naija program, which was put in place in 2023 and aims to provide solar power to 5 million households and 20 million individuals, will continue to pay dividends in 2024.

Expect to see the addition of more solar infrastructure in developing countries leading to an economic boost.

AI efficiency gains in solar tech

In 2023 AI development hit a new level, one of the main impacts of this technology is the ability to accelerate our learning and innovation. In 2024 we are likely to start seeing the real impact of AI.

For solar this means we will see an acceleration in technological improvements and efficiency gains.

This will include the development of smart grids; personalised solar solutions based on energy usage patterns; the widespread use of predictive maintenance and energy production optimisation; and energy production optimisations based on weather data, historical performance, and real-time conditions.

Floating solar farms

The global installed capacity of floating solar farms saw substantial growth in 2023 and we expect to see this continue in 2024.

Countries with limited land space or those aiming to preserve agricultural land are increasingly adopting this technology. Last year large-scale projects were commissioned in Asia, Europe, and parts of the Americas.

In 2024 we expect to see these farms expand into new regions, including those with significant inland water bodies. The trend of creating hybrid renewable energy systems, combining floating solar with wind, hydro, or other renewable sources, is also expected to gain momentum.

Increasing Adoption of Bifacial Solar Panels

Bifacial solar panels are innovative solar modules capable of capturing sunlight from both their front and back sides, significantly boosting energy production by up to 10-30%.

Although they may have a higher initial cost, the enhanced energy yield of bifacial panels can lead to a lower overall cost of electricity over their lifespan. With the cost of panels continuing to fall in 2024, coupled with the versatility of bifacial panels, they will become an increasingly popular choice.

Use of transparent photovoltaic (PV) glass

Transparent photovoltaic glass is likely to be a game-changer in the solar industry. This type of panel is made from clear glass meaning energy production can be built into windows and aesthetic designs.

PV has already been used in a number of projects, such as the Edge in Amsterdam and Kaneka Corporation in Osaka. Further developments and applications of this technology will see it become more widely used into 2024 and beyond.

Long-term Solar Advancements Beyond 2024

When we consider the long-term future of solar the possibilities become even more exciting. Here are some of the headline forecasts up to 2030.

  • The world is on course to add more renewable capacity in the next five years than has been installed in the previous 100 years.
  • In 2025, renewables will become the largest source of electricity generation.
  • In 2028, renewable energy sources will account for over 42% of global electricity generation, with the share of wind and solar PV doubling to 25%.
  • By 2028 China will account for almost 60% of new renewable capacity.
  • By 20230, G20 could triple their collective installed capacity.

Solar panel building materials

We already have solar panels appearing in building materials with designs like Tesla’s solar tiles that seamlessly integrate with traditional roofing materials.

In the future the possibilities of this technology are enormous. One development could be the use of solar skins.

Future buildings might be wrapped in 'solar skins' – thin, flexible layers of solar cells that can be applied to any surface. These skins could adapt to different architectural styles and building shapes, making solar power generation a standard feature of every building.

We may see Self-Repairing Solar Cells, modules that are equipped with materials that can self-repair or clear themselves of dust and snow.

Space-based solar technology

In space solar panels are already used to power satellites, probes and space stations, however, they can be susceptible to the rigours of the harsh space environment.

Future developments in space-based solar power could allow us to generate a near-infinite source of energy and explore our solar system like never before.

One example of a possible form of solar space travel in development today, sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction novel.

Solar sails are a form of spacecraft propulsion that uses large, reflective sails to capture the momentum of sunlight. This technology is only in its infancy, however, it holds the promise of propelling future spacecraft without the need for fuel.

Solar panels in transport

Current attempts to use solar energy to solely power vehicles, either on land, water or air have been largely unsuccessful due to the weight and efficiency of the panels used.

However in the future, with the development of lightweight high-efficiency solar surfaces, it will likely become possible to create a car that never needs charging or a plane that can fly for months without landing.

We are already starting to see these uses on drones which draw power from the sun and can operate for long periods of time without charge.

Nano-materials

Nano-materials may prove to be a core piece of the puzzle that allows solar panels to reach new heights in the future.

With the use of nanoscale semiconductors and other technology, solar panels will become more durable, adaptable and capable than ever before.

Possible applications include self-cleaning panels that can remove snow and debris that would otherwise reduce efficiency; flexible panels that are far more portable and easy to set up; thermophotovoltaic Cells that can convert infrared waves into electricity.

Expect to see this technology popping up and being applied in ways we haven’t even considered.

A hopeful future for solar power

Looking at the evidence, it is clear that the future of solar energy is bright.

With such rapid development and an increasing will to invest, solar power looks to become a fundamental part of our global future.

Despite this, we should also reserve a degree of caution. While there is plenty to be optimistic about, projects in the solar industry are not always a success, and for every breakthrough, there are also failures

Take, for example, the promise of solar roads. The idea was that tarmac roads could be replaced with solar surfaces, turning our road networks into a continuous supply of green energy.

Unfortunately, these roads produced high costs and little energy and also had durability issues.

It’s important to understand that an inevitable part of the rapid move away from fossil fuels is that there will be failures along the way. Many promising new technologies will not succeed and that is a part of the process.

So although we can rightly be excited by the prospect of a green solar-powered future, we must be ready for the ups and downs along that path.

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