One in six people in the world still lack access to electricity. It’s a major obstacle for certain countries —not only in terms of economic development and job creation, but also for supporting vital public services that underpin economies such as healthcare and education.
So, with the world’s population forecast to grow by more than 1 billion by 2050 and International Energy Agency figures pointing to a parallel rise in demand for energy of one-fifth and for electricity of one-third, the great energy challenge is on.
If the urgent need for more power is clear, so is the requirement to make its generation compatible with the international consensus that climate change and pollution are top priorities. Sustainable energy sources, therefore, have a major role to play alongside more efficient fossil fuel generation and nuclear power, as the global community strives to hit demanding renewables targets.
For once, though, there’s a good news story to tell. Solar photovoltaic (PV) costs are tumbling faster than expected. Battery energy storage is advancing rapidly, and a new generation of other solar technology—including higher voltage inverters—is now delivering much more power from smaller solar farms at lower costs. The result is a redrawing of the solar energy landscape to offer transformational flexibility, efficiency and resilience that will go a long way to helping meet our world’s mid-century power needs.
Today’s strong demand for solar power—forecasted to install 80 gigawatts (GW) in 2017 compared with just 2.4 GW 10 years ago—is driven not just by attractive government incentives, but also by rapidly evolving advanced technology.
What was once a high-cost, high-risk sector is fast being transformed by four key tech developments. These include the maturation of the ground-breaking 1.5 kilovolt (kV) inverter, the use of silicon carbide (SiC) in place of traditional silicon semi-conductors, “smart” productivity applications and an integrated systems approach that “joins up” all links in the solar generation chain.
The result is increasing downward pressure on the levelized cost of electricity (LCofE) that’s now delivering a more cost-competitive solar energy future.
Leveraging the 1,500-volt system advantage
The PV inverters that convert the sun’s energy (DC) into grid power (AC) have been the focus of some of the most radical innovations of all. That’s because a higher voltage type can deliver greater energy output per square meter, in turn ensuring farms require less infrastructure and land to operate efficiently. So, inverters that were once typically built to a 1 kV specification a few years ago are being swiftly superseded by the 1.5 kV standard first launched by GE in 2012.
When coupled with a matching PV module, 1.5 kV inverters can help deliver up to 3 percent and 15 percent reduction in system and operational costs respectively. Their efficiency and cost advantages are now seeing GE’s 1.5 kV roll-out widely replacing “standard” 1-kV kits across the world, and first deployments are live in many Asian countries including Japan and India. As a result, many solar farm operators are poised to see effective growth of their solar generation capacity.
Silicon carbide: hot new properties
With higher inverter voltages demanding durability and resilience to conduct electricity at higher temperatures, the ultra-tough, diamond-like qualities of SiC are proving ideal for the task. First applied by GE in the medical and aviation sectors, SiC is the perfect semi-conductor for the new generation of 1.5 kV inverters—achieving up to twice the power density and half the losses of the “traditional” silicon solution.
When used in GE’s new LV5+ inverter, the robust, simplified, air-cooled design SiC can reach 99 percent efficiency, based on the European Union’s “weighted” efficiency calculation standard. As today’s solar inverters are 98 percent efficient, it is a figure unmatched within the industry. Through 1 percent increase of efficiency, the technology is able to deliver compelling bottom-line impact: it could generate additional power equaling up to US$2.5 million over a 100-megawatt plant’s lifetime.
Boosting productivity with digital
But just as solar generation hardware advances, so do the possibilities opened up by the new world of IoT that will see US$50 billion worth of assets connected to the Internet by 2020.
Real-time, big data-informed intelligence and analytics are set to redefine solar performance and productivity expectations by automating and optimizing predictive maintenance and monitoring across every item of solar plant hardware. The outcome is reduced costs and downtime—plus greater productivity—in an industry where replacing just one faulty part has previously meant days of disruption and lost output.
The lack of data and smart use of data has historically translated into lost profit for solar projects—for example: contingency reserves around 5 percent of capex, overspend on data-blind O&M contracts around 8 percent of revenue and/or kilowatt-hour losses between 1 percent and 3 percent of revenue. With deeper insight, increased performance and lower costs offered by digitization changing the game for the solar industry, they are further strengthening solar’s position in the global energy lineup.
“Joined up” support throughout the solar generation life cycle
As the solar PV market expands exponentially—alongside the complexities of ever-larger farms and challenges around grid stability—plant developers, investors, owners and operators are looking for ways to minimize risk and deliver the best return.
That’s why the industry is evolving to embrace integrated systems, an approach central to the way GE interacts with the full width of the utility-scale solar PV ecosystem. It means GE is working with customers to bring them more than just the latest inverter. It involves forging close partnerships that coordinate solar power resources and expertise every step of the way—from
PV modules, inverter, balance of plant, energy management system, storage and digital solutions—plus full service to guarantee long-term performance.
GE’s approach represents a compelling way forward to maximize the advantages of lower-cost, higher-spec solar power technology. In particular, by super charging it with the control and big data analytics opportunities offered by digital solutions, GE has become a bankable partner able to support its customers at every stage of the solar generation life cycle. The brakes are off to meet the tough demands of growing 21st century global economies and populations by making the most of utility-scale PV.
 GTM – Global Solar Demand Monitor Datafile Q1 2017