Are You Ready For The Big Time?

There’s no other way to put this: 2021 is going to be a massive year for solar. On the back of the U.S. Energy Information Association’s forecast that the United States will install 19.5 GWac of solar this year, we are seeing other signs that all point in the direction of major growth. The Renewable Energy Buyer’s Alliance (REBA) reports that in 2020 procurement of solar and wind from large corporate buyers broke the 10 GW mark for the first time, with contracts being signed for 7.6 GW of solar alone.

This is not un-noticed around the world, and the growing U.S. renewable energy market has increasingly been attracting global capital. The latest is Masdar, a renewable energy company backed by the sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates, which announced that it is buying half of a 1.6 GW solar and wind portfolio that EDF Renewables has under development. And in terms of hot markets, don’t even get us started on solar’s performance in the stock market.

And market growth won’t stop in 2021. By 2026, the Mid-Continent System Operator forecasts that it will have 10.8 GW of solar online, up from less than 2 GW today. This, in the not-so-sunny Midwest.

We’ve also seen promising signs for the battery market, with Plus Power winning bids in the ISO New England capacity market for two projects totaling 315 MW of standalone batteries in Massachusetts and Maine. These would be bigger than any batteries installed in New England to date, and could herald the beginning of a standalone battery market in the region.

But it isn’t just the market that is getting bigger. Solar modules are getting more powerful, with an increasing number of 500 watt+ products available, and the cells themselves are getting physically larger. Over the past year we’ve seen the shift to 182 and 210mm cell sizes increasingly gain speed.

These larger cells promise more bang for the buck, but they also require significant retooling not only of factories, but along the entire value chain. Inverters are adapting to modules that offer higher current from these larger cells, and trackers have to deal with new form factors.

The value chain will adapt, because ultimately what these larger cells mean is a lower levelized cost of electricity. This is already being shown in testing by DNV GL. But the path forward is not entirely clear. After many years of 156.75mm wafers being the industry standard, which size will the global solar industry settle on? 182 or 210mm?

It’s not clear that anyone knows the answer to that right now, but what is clear is that the progress of technology will not stop there. Right now, we are all along for the ride.