Artificial intelligence, 5G technology and the internet of things (IoT) will revolutionise the way modules, inverters and trackers are made over the next ten years and transform the solar supply chain, according to Wood Mackenzie.

Smart factories, trade tensions, repowering and cybersecurity are just some of the themes the energy consultancy identified for the next decade in an analysis published Tuesday.

More efficient and automated production processes will combine with smarter solar system design and innovations in wafer, cell and module technology to improve energy yields and drive down the cost of solar systems.

“Intelligent system design, using software powered by data analytics coupled with real-time performance monitoring, will ensure solar systems are designed and operated to maximise energy generation and financial performance,” senior analyst Xiaojing Sun explained. “The 30-year module performance warranties will put solar power plants’ lifetime on par with that of natural gas combined-cycle plants, increasing the competitiveness of solar in the marketplace.”

According to Sun, 500W+ modules will be “widespread” in the second half of the 2020s, yet cost no more than today’s 400W modules.

Highly automated manufacturing plants will have steeper up-front capital costs while reducing the need for labour. This will curb the labour cost advantage currently enjoyed by Asian firms.

Increased reliance on data, IT and telecommunications technologies across the supply chain will increase the risk of cybersecurity breaches.

Analyst Lindsay Cherry noted that security experts view an attack on the US electricity grid as “imminent.” 

The lack of a comprehensive federal standard is a “concern,” she said.

“If a cyberattack hit the solar industry tomorrow, it would severely jeopardise the reliability of plants and hurt the industry both reputationally and operationally.”

The rise of repowering and “solar plus” applications

The repowering potential of existing plants that have reached 20 years of operation could reach 67GWdc cumulatively by 2030, according to Wood Mackenzie.

This is an opportunity for asset owners, operations and maintenance providers and manufacturers, given that repowering can lean on existing infrastructure, land and interconnection points.

Standalone solar will be “less relevant” in the 2020s as solar plus applications, such as floating solar and solar with energy storage, become more commonplace.

Costs for such co-applications are set to decline with rising demand and a more crowded market.

The final theme the consultancy highlighted in its report was trade tensions.

It warned that if the US repeats the three different import tariffs that currently impact solar modules, they could cost twice as much in the US than in Europe or Canada by 2026.

On the other hand, if the US removed the tariffs, system prices would drop by 30% and the cost of utility-scale solar would plummet to less than US$1/Wdc.

While the elimination of tariffs would deal a “huge blow” to domestic manufacturers, US developers, consumers and the economics of solar-plus-storage would benefit.

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