This article is part of our new State of Solar Adoption 2021 Series which will interview a diverse mix of solar experts with the goal of better understanding their perspectives on the current state and future of solar adoption, what is holding the industry back, tips on how to boost adoption, and more.
The following is an interview we had recently with Dr. Nick Engerer, CTO of Solcast.
What is the state of solar adoption today?
NE: At a global level, the state of solar adoption is strong. Zoom in, and growth rates vary widely - but there are still major trends to identify. Developing countries are now taking up the strongest growth. Areas like Eastern Europe, parts of South America, and Southeast Asia are deploying remarkable amounts. Despite recent pessimistic views on the ability of solar module costs to fall further, they have continued to do so. Interestingly, there is even a growing market opportunity for 2nd hand modules, which are being deployed to economies with relatively weak purchasing power.
Here in Australia, rooftop solar continues to boom, with many areas reaching 40-60% penetrations of homes and business. At a state level, nearly every state has exceeded 20% solar penetration, and despite this market saturation, growth continues unabated. We’ve exceeded 20GW of installed capacity as of late 2020, growing from only half that in late 2018.
What are 3-5 things holding back the mainstream adoption of solar energy?
NE: From the Solcast perspective, we see the integration of increasing volumes of residential and commercial rooftop scale solar PV as a key challenge at the distribution network level. For example, we are working with South Australia Power Networks in South Australia where over 2GW of this type of solar is installed in a network with peak demand of only 3-3.5GW. Reverse power flows (sometimes even up the transmission lines) is a key network stability challenge. We provide them with real-time and short-term power forecasting for these assets so that they can develop dynamic constraint algorithms to utilize distributed energy assets (e.g. batteries) to confront this challenge.
Another big challenge exists at a higher level - the whole energy market balance of supply and demand. Once again in South Australia, ramping events of >500MW in a matter of 30 minutes are becoming commonplace, as thick cloud cover suddenly arrives and then departs. Without predicting these events ahead of time, the energy market is not suitably informed to ensure supply-demand balance is securely managed. We are providing the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and two large utilities with this type of information on a rapid update basis through our satellite based solar forecasting system along with short-term wind forecasting, so that they may develop new ways to operate this high penetration renewables grid.
What more can be done to drive mainstream adoption of solar energy?
NE: Increasingly, the biggest areas for solar growth are in less developed countries. We need to ensure we support them with adequate access to solar panels and inverters at prices they can afford, followed by ensuring they can install and operate them in less secure and developed electricity grids. A great example of this is in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, where the demand for solar installs is growing rapidly, but their infrastructure and skills base is lagging slightly. Countries with ample experience in this space need to stand by to support these less wealthy countries, so that solar can continue to grow in such regions of great opportunity.
How would the world be different if 75% of all Americans used some form of solar energy?
NE: We’re not far off that mark here in Australia. In fact, some areas of South Australia already have penetrations of 75%. What changes? At this level of penetration, equity of access becomes more problematic. Many new installs in South Australia have to come with an ‘off button’, where the utility can switch off their solar generation when there is too much supply. In other areas of Australia, expensive hardware is required to ensure that reverse power flow is limited. Both of these increase prices and reduce the amount of electricity homes can sell back to the grid. Americans would surely also encounter these barriers. And with less regulation on the utilities in the US, they could easily get a ‘raw deal’ from their local provider and miss out.
Why are you so passionate about working in solar?
NE: Our team is dedicated to deploying high quality data and tools to enable those who are planning, building, and operating the solar powered future. We envision a world powered by cheap, ubiquitous solar, and as of 2021, we’re not far off of realizing this vision. Knowing that we can play a role in helping the hard-working folks make this a reality is what fires us up as a team and gets us into the office each day with a sense of purpose.
Personally, I made the leap into the solar energy space as a meteorologist back in 2010, when I realized there was a huge opportunity to apply my skills to the challenges of solar power forecasting. Given the state of solar adoption today, and in the years since, I am confident this was a smart move!