Author: Tom van der Linden
By: Tom van der Linden (in collaboration with Trina Solar)
Portugal’s solar energy market has its eyes set on dramatic growth. By the end of 2020, the country had just crossed the 1 GW of milestone cumulative PV capacity, representing 3.6% of the country’s total power generation. In the years leading up to 2030, the country will aim to increase that number nearly tenfold, having set a goal of between 8.1 and 9.9 GW of installed solar capacity by the end of the decade. To rapidly scale up solar project development in Portugal and give the pipeline of ready-to-build projects a push, a crucial hurdle to overcome are the financial and commercial constraints seen by investors. To do so, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) and balance-of-system (BOS) costs will have to be brought down. In order to achieve this, developers are increasingly embracing recent technological developments.
During ‘Solar Market Parity Portugal’, Solarplaza’s annual conference that digs deep into the national PV industry and its workings, a section of the program was specifically dedicated to technical innovation, bringing together a panel of key perspectives to discuss the topic ‘How to benefit from the technological innovations coming to Portugal.’ The panel was made up out of Pedro Alves (MTX Solar) - representing the project development perspective; Mireia Beltrá (Trina Solar) - speaking on behalf of PV module and smart energy solutions providers; Glen Sochackyj (Sungrow) - an inverter manufacturer; and Pedro Sousa (Efacec) - an EPC. This article highlights some of the core elements of their discussion, along with additional context and insights.
One of the major elements of the equation of course continues to be the solar module. Solar panels have seen some big recent developments in terms of core technology, size and output, and voltage design. Moreover, bifacial modules are slowly grabbing more and more market share.
Currently, p-mono PERC PV cells are still dominating the market, representing 92.2% of global PV cell production. N-type cells, however, enjoy higher efficiency, are immune to LID effects and are less sensitive to impurities in the raw silicon. The growth path of N-type cells looks steep, with forecasts saying n-type cells could claim 40% of the market by 2028.
Looking beyond cell technology, the module size and consequent enhanced power output have also been hugely impactful, recently. In just a few years, module manufacturers like Trina Solar have doubled the power output of solar panels. Already, modules with power outputs up to 670W are installed. Bigger modules have a lot of direct impact on project costs. Less modules per string simply mean less required racking, less cable, less logistics and less man hours required for installation.
Along with the power output, improved voltage design is also making its mark on budgets. Thanks to innovative low voltage design of modules like Trina Solar’s Vertex line, CAPEX of solar projects can be reduced by about 2-4%.
One of the biggest potential game changers, but also still one of the most contested ones, are the application of bifacial solar modules. Far from being a new standard, bifacial modules are, in fact, becoming more and more common. Also on this front, Trina Solar’s Mireia Beltrá voiced clear expectations, saying that - even in Europe, with its many low-irradiance regions - they expect the share of bifacial modules in utility-scale projects to grow significantly in the short term. Why? Because, according to her, the benefits are clear and impossible to ignore. First of all, bifacial modules face lower module degradation rates, with a maximum annual degradation of 0.45% instead of the 0.55% of traditional modules. Furthermore, module manufacturers provide longer warranty periods for bifacial modules. Trina Solar, for example, offers 30 years of performance warranty, rather than 25 years. Of course, the most important benefit is the higher yields these modules offer.
However, modeling and simulation of bifacial PV modules for now remains a major obstacle to the bankability of bifacial PV technology. Performance forecasting models for monofacial PV modules are well-established, but their adaptation to bifacial systems is still in progress.
As a solution provider, Trina Solar wants to assume its responsibility to support the industry in overcoming these challenges, backing them up with the experience and data they’ve been gathering through a track record - just in Europe - of between 2 and 3 GW of installed bifacial modules.
Strongly related to module applications, is the involvement of trackers in PV project design. Last year, in 2020, the global shipment volume of single-axis trackers grew 40% year-on-year, which shows the increasing appetite for this yield-enhancing technology. Especially in southern European markets like Greece, Italy and Portugal, this market share is expected to increase further.
Important as modules might be, they are part of a larger system in which all pieces must fit. As always, the weakest link determines the success of the system as a whole.
Another hugely impactful component to consider, then, is of course the inverter. Although inverters “only” account for 4% of the capital expenditures for any given system, they can account for 80% or more of cases of underperformance or lost revenue. With the rapid evolution of cell and module technology, ramped-up power outputs and new variances in voltage and currents, inverter manufacturers have to upgrade their designs to match those. Doing so, and adhering to certification and qualification requirements to meet stringent grid codes is an increasing challenge to meet.
As investors and developers plan their projects and pipelines 2 to 3 years in advance, standardization and compatibility of all system components are crucial to truly ensure that the LCOE can really be reduced.
Exciting and promising as continued and accelerated technological developments might then be, stabilization and standardization of component compatibility proves to be equally crucial to bring down costs. Striking the right balance between those two elements and ensuring that all parts of the system remain complimentary, reliable and suitable for forecasting and modeling will prove important keys to the solution and increased solar development in Portugal.