Is the sun setting on solar?

01 August 2016

My first experience of solar panels was at school, where I used a calculator which, to an eight-year old, seemed to be magically powered through its built-in solar panel. Solar technology has come a long way since then and, while the underlying principle of the technology remains the same, the range of applications of solar technology has grown a huge amount.

Over the past ten years or so, developments in solar technology have been widely publicised. For example, over the past few years, a Swiss team behind a solar-powered aircraft project, Solar Impulse¹ , has been developing a single-seat monoplane powered by photovoltaic cells and is capable of taking off under its own power. The latest aircraft developed as part of the project, Solar Impulse 2, has recently made headlines for circumnavigating the globe.

A recently-published United States patent application², filed by US-based aircraft giants Boeing, details a solar-powered aircraft that could fly for many years at a time, and could be capable of suspending a payload high above the earth for a prolonged period. Such a development could revolutionise the way communications are provided to remote areas on the planet.
The Chinese solar company, Hanergy recently unveiled³ a range of four zero-emission cars which can be powered entirely by the sun. Each vehicle captures the sun’s power through an array of thin-film solar cells spread over its roof and bonnet, and five or six hours of daylight can provide enough power to run the car for the entire day. 
However, it’s not just revolutionary vehicles that are making use of new technologies in the solar sector. Falling costs and improved efficiency in solar cells have led to many new residential buildings and office buildings being provided with solar panel arrays on their roofs to supplement the mains power supply to the buildings. And you don’t have to drive far along a road in the UK to see a road-side solar farm on what was previously an empty field or farmland.

The rapid increase in the presence of rooftop solar and solar farms in the UK was prompted by the generous subsidies offered by the UK government which meant that the installing solar panels was not only affordable, but could even be profitable. Under a so-called “feed-in tariff” (FIT) a solar panel owner is paid money for electricity they generate that is supplied to the grid. The UK introduced a generous FIT scheme in 2010, but cuts to the subsidy in subsequent years have made the UK’s scheme less attractive to companies and individuals considering installing solar panels.

In the United States, companies are incentivised to develop and deploy solar programmes by their Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) scheme. The ITC scheme has recently been extended by seven years, and the extension is expected to result in a continued reduction in solar prices, and continued investment in solar research and development by companies working in the sector.

So, while development in solar technology is expected to continue in the US for the foreseeable future, is the same true in the UK? The chart below shows how the solar landscape has changed over the past decade. The red line indicates the number of European (EP) and UK patent publications in the field of solar and photovoltaics. There has been a clear drop in patent publication numbers in the past couple of years, but the figures available for the first half of 2016 (indicated by the dashed line) suggest that figures may be on the rise once again. 

Solar landscape chart

The blue bars in the chart represent data provided by the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and show the amount of new solar capacity (in MegaWatts) in the UK each year since the UK’s fee-in tariff was introduced in 2010. The hatched bar representing data for 2016 in the chart is a prediction based on the data available for the first four months of 2016, and suggests that the amount of new solar capacity in the UK this year may be significantly lower than 2015, despite the expected increase in patent activity.

Therefore, while we might expect to see fewer solar farms popping up than we have seen in recent years, the data seems to suggest that companies are continuing their R&D efforts in this sector and, despite subsidy cuts in the UK, the sun continues to shine in this field of technology.


² United States patent publication number 2016/0144969



Andrew Flaxman

Andrew Flaxman


Our Expert
Andrew Flaxman
Andrew Flaxman
Location: Bristol (UK)

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