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  • Writer's pictureTiana Starks

Solar on water, robots, and 2-sided panels, oh my: solar tech’s near future

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

Back in 2008, when the US was deploying less than 300 megawatts a year of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, and the boom in solar was but a gleam in President Barack Obama’s eye, it was very much an open question which solar technology might triumph in the end, or if any of them would triumph at all.

Most solar at the time used old-fashioned crystalline silicon panels, which have been around since the 1950s. But there were hopes for (and some extremely large investments in) multi-junction solar cells, thin-film solar panels, organic and carbon nanotube cells, concentrated solar plants, and a variety of other solar power-generation technologies.

Today, after a dizzying decade of solar growth — the US installed more than 10 gigawatts of PV in 2017, and five US states now generate 10 percent or more of their electricity from solar — most solar uses … old-fashioned crystalline silicon panels.

They’ve gotten better, of course, but more importantly, they have gotten cheap — more than 80 percent cheaper since 2009:

Silicon PV dominates the market more than ever.

The point was driven home to me recently when GTM Research (which is in the process of becoming Wood MacKenzie) contacted me about a series of short reports on nascent solar technologies just breaking into markets.

I expected to hear about fancy new solar cells — nano-this, quantum-that. But that’s not what the solar market is right now.

Rather than silicon alternatives, the new technologies nudging their way into commercialization complement silicon PV, enabling panels to deploy in new places (on lakes and reservoirs!) or reducing the cost of maintenance (panel-cleaning robots!).

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