Gigafactories

Elon Musk really is a one-of-a-kind entrepreneur. Musk first entered the spotlight when he founded PayPal, which went on to become the largest Internet payment gateway of them all. Despite early success, nobody knew at the time, quite what this young businessman was capable of. Musk’s ambitions have grown steadily over the years. He transformed the electric car industry with Tesla and practically created the private space industry with his Space X programme.

Tesla says that it plans to produce 500,000 cars per year by 2018. This lofty ambition presents something of a problem. Such a high volume of production would require today’s entire worldwide supply of lithium-ion batteries.

In order to meet its own demand, Tesla has built a battery factory of epic proportions. When complete, the Gigafactory will be the largest building in the world. It will be entirely powered by renewable energy sources and, most importantly, it will have an annual battery production capacity of 35 GWh – nearly as much as the entire world’s current annual battery production combined.

When the Gigafactory starts ramping up production, Tesla’s cost of battery cells will significantly decline through economies of scale. The ramifications for the battery storage market will undoubtedly be profound.

 

Tesla roof panels

While on the topic of Tesla, it’s worth mentioning their new Solar Roof panels. Compared to private missions to Mars and giga-scale battery manufacturing, PV roof panels might not sound all that innovative. But Tesla’s discrete technology, designed to mimic standard building materials used for roofing, could prove to be a pivotal innovation.

Many homes and business, particularly in the UK, are unable to install solar PV due to planning restrictions. There are further limitations on the size of free-standing solar arrays for buildings and flats.

While it might seem arbitrary at first, advancements in the aesthetics of panels could overcome many of these restrictions and provide the stepping stone needed to make solar PV a social norm. Discrete solar roof panels could also prove useful in the quest to generate clean electricity without taking up additional real estate.

 

Solar roads

Towards the end of 2016, a kilometre-long stretch of solar panel road, called Wattway, was opened in Tourouvre-au-Perche, Normandy, France. To withstand traffic, the panels were coated with a clear silicon resin.

With one million kilometres of road in France, the potential for energy creation using such a technology is huge; however, Wattway took five years to complete and cost £3.83 million. Using those figures, it would cost close to £4 trillion (and take some 5 million years) to roll solar roads out across the country. Until costs come down, the project is really more of a proof-of-concept, but it succeeds in demonstrating the new and innovative ways that solar is being utilised.

 

Gains in solar efficiency

Earlier this year, researchers at Kaneka, a Japanese resin and plastics manufacturer, created the first silicon solar cell to achieve 26.3 percent efficiency, a 0.7 percent gain on the previous record.

That might sound insignificant, but silicon solar cells have a theoretical maximum efficiency of just 29 percent, which means that – for the first time – we have crossed the 90 percent threshold in terms of achievable efficiency.

The 180.43-square-centimeter monocrystalline silicon prototype cell achieved the efficiency gains by using a combination of Kaneka’s proprietary heterojunction technology, a high-quality amorphous silicon and a back-contact structure that boosted the amount of sunlight able to enter the cell.

Should the technology make it to mass production, it could play a key role in reducing the cost of power generation using solar technologies in the future.

Top four recent innovations in renewables