The rise of solar power has taken the world by surprise, with prices dropping faster and adoption happening quicker than most dared hope. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has had to raise its forecast for renewable energy production over the next five years, after a colossal 305GW of solar power was installed globally in 2016.
“We see renewables growing by about 1,000GW by 2022, which equals about half of the current global capacity in coal power, which took 80 years to build,” says IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol. “What we are witnessing is the birth of a new era in solar PV. We expect that solar PV capacity growth will be higher than any other renewable technology through 2022.”
The IEA forecasts that renewables, including solar PV and wind, will make up 30% of global energy produced in 2022. This increase is mainly due to the increase in adoption of solar power in the US, India and China, the latter accounting for almost half of all solar panels globally.
As solar power gets bigger and brighter, so the panels get more innovative and complex, with many looking to combine solar technologies such as concentrated solar power (CSP) and photovoltaic (PV) to make the most of the power of the sun.
The biggest CSP: Noor Facility
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The Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex is on track to be the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. Located 10km north-east of the city of Ouarzazate, Morocco, the project will ultimately consist of five plants, four of which will use CSP. When completed, the project will have a total capacity of 2GW.
Phase one of the complex is already complete. With a capacity of 160MW, the Noor I plant uses arrays of parabolic troughs and includes three hours worth of thermal storage using molten salts. Stage two of the project is underway, and consists of two similar solar fields; Noor II, which has a capacity of 200MW, and Noor III, with a capacity of 150MW. While Noor II was scheduled to start operations in 2017, Noor III is due to begin this year.
Following these, Noor IV will add an as yet unconfirmed amount of power to the complex, then the final Noor V will make use of photovoltaics to give it an additional capacity of 72MW. The gigantic project will provide vast amounts of energy to Morocco, but with the quick build time of CSP, it is unlikely to remain the largest for long.
The biggest PV
In 2017, Longyangxia Dam solar park became the largest solar field in the world, having expanded virtually constantly since construction began in 2013. Recent images taken by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on NASA’s Landsat 8, make the immense growth of this project abundantly clear.
Covering 27km2 of the Tibetan plateau and costing CNY6bn (£721.3m), the solar park consists of more than four million solar panels – enough to power as many as 200,000 households. Its 850MW capacity eclipses India’s Kamuthi solar power project in Tamil Nadu, which previously held the world record at 648MW.
Longyangxia Dam solar park has been vital to China’s impressive solar expansion, as the country’s solar capacity doubled in 2016 to 77GW. But the park looks set to be outdone soon, as a new project is already planned for the Ningxia region of north-west China, which when complete, will have a capacity of 2GW.
A combination of solar
For years, talk of capturing the solar potential of deserts has been stalled by maintenance and operations concerns. CSP has risen as the favoured technology within the world’s hottest and most arid regions, including Israel’s Negev Desert. The Ashalim thermo-solar power station, constructed over 988 acres by Negev Energy, will have a total capacity of more than 300MW when completed next year.
While it is not the biggest desert-based solar plant, it intends to do something its predecessors haven’t yet managed. The complex is split into four separate areas, to allow it to take advantage of three types of solar power, two of which will use PV panels to generate 70MW. This will most likely be the first time PV has been used in a desert and the Ashalim project will be able to test how a combination of technologies will work together.
The PV plants will work together with a 121MW CSP site, using 16,224 parabolic troughs to direct the sun’s radiation into thermal oil. This heats to 390°C and is then used to create the steam needed to drive turbines. These will be able to power 60,000 households. The final plant in the complex is a 121MW thermo-solar station which has already been constructed and uses 50,000 computer controlled heliostat mirrors to concentrate the solar radiation towards a central sun tower.
A huge floating farm
In June 2017, the largest-ever floating solar power plant was switched on. The panels have a capacity of 40MW and sit in the city of Huainan, in China’s eastern Anhui province. The plant floats over the site of a former coal mine, which collapsed and flooded, destroying homes and leaving the area unusable, up until now.
Built by Sungrow, this solarfarm is a big advancement on previous floating projects. In 2016, the biggest farm was in the UK, on 6% of the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) reservoir by Walton-on-Thames. QEII was constructed of 23,000 solar panels with a capacity of 6.3MW.
As such, the Huainan solarfarm presents a colossal step up for the technology, with its 166,000 panels capable of powering a large town. The benefits of floating solar are well-known, as it requires less land and works efficiently, as the water cools the panels naturally. They can also support areas prone to droughts, as floating panels take the brunt of the sun’s rays, reducing the amount of water that evaporates.
Floating solar also has its drawbacks, however, most notably its effect on eco-systems that rely on the water. But for places such as Huainan, the use of otherwise inactive water resources results in clean power.
The aesthetics of solar panels haven’t changed much as the technology has grown. But as companies seek to build their green credentials, many are opting for a more personalised or stylish alternative to the traditional shiny blue slabs. For instance, at the Evian headquarters, its alpine symbol features on the black panels that power the offices. While in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border, the Google logo takes pride of place in the Ivanpah solar electric generating system, being spelled out by heliostats.
Elsewhere, solar panels are being adapted for more specific audiences. The China Merchants New Energy Group completed the first stage of its 100MW panda-shaped solarfarm in June. When completed, it will cover 1,500 acres in Datong Shanxi with these pandas. The first stage has a capacity of 50MW and the project will produce 3.2 billion kWh of green electricity during its 25-year life span.
The solarfarm has been designed in the image of China’s most famous animal to help educate young people about the importance of clean energy sources. It is part of the Belt and Road Initiative, currently underway and led by the Chinese Government and the United Nations Development Programme.