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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Solar Power Reaches New Heights in 2024: Some Big News You May Have Missed

The solar energy sector is seeing major global growth, with a host of large-scale projects coming online and new discoveries with the potential to revolutionize the industry even further.
By Mary Mazzoni
5B foldable solar power array

This may look like an ordinary solar farm, but this installation engineered by the Australian startup 5B is actually made up of foldable components that can be deployed far faster than traditional solar arrays. (Image courtesy of 5B)

Renewable energy developers worked for decades to achieve cost parity with the fossil fuel sector, and today renewable technologies are cheaper than oil and gas in most scenarios. As a result, renewable energy projects are booming around the world, and investment in renewables is set to double investment in fossil fuels this year. The solar energy sector in particular is seeing major growth, with a host of large-scale projects coming online and new discoveries with the potential to revolutionize the industry even further.

That's great news, as research shows that meeting a quarter of global power needs with solar would bring us nearly a fifth of the way toward the emission reductions necessary to cap temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius in the fight against climate change. Read on for some of the big solar news you may have missed in the first half of 2024. 

Foldable solar energy setups could make construction easier than ever

Solar panels are typically installed individually, which makes constructing large energy installations that can power thousands of homes a time consuming and laborious job. The Australian startup 5B is out to change that with a foldable design that can shrink solar construction time from weeks to days. 

The startup devised a way to wire 90 solar panels together into a foldable system that can be unfurled at the development site and snapped into place. Last year in Australia, the system allowed a team of eight workers to cover a soccer field's worth of space with more than 2,000 solar panels in a single day, Fast Company reports.

“Historically, solar farms have been built like a multimillion-piece puzzle ... often in extreme heat,” 5B CEO David Griffin told Fast Company. “It’s expensive, it’s high risk, and it’s increasingly difficult to cost-effectively scale, as solar farms become larger and more remote.”

Along with mainland Australia, 5B's setup was used for a cyclone-resistant solar energy system to power remote communities in the country's Tiwi Islands, which switched on earlier this year. Last month, 5B also inked a major contract for a new solar energy and energy storage system in Puerto Rico, a significant step as the island looks to shift from a highly expensive and fossil fuel dependent electric grid to using more renewable energy. 

The world’s biggest solar energy farm could power an entire country

China flipped on the largest solar farm in the world earlier this month, and it's roughly the size of New York City. The average U.S. solar farm generates about 5 megawatts of energy, enough to power roughly 10,000 homes. For comparison, China's new mega array can produce 5 gigawatts, or 1,000 times more energy, which is enough to power a small country the size of Luxembourg, The Independent reports. The massive system is one of many recently deployed in China as it increased solar energy capacity by more than 50 percent last year. 

While the installation is a historic feat from a renewable energy standpoint, some human rights watchdogs are concerned about China's solar boom. Investigations indicate the country's solar industry is likely “heavily exposed” to forced labor of the marginalized Uyghur ethnic group, which the Chinese government denies

This city wants to transform cemeteries into Spain's largest urban solar farm

The city of Valencia, located on Spain's western coast about 200 miles (350 kilometers) south of Barcelona, has a novel idea to turn places of remembrance into hotbeds for solar energy. The fittingly named Requiem in Power (RIP) project launched this month with the first of more than 6,500 solar panels set to be installed at local cemeteries across the city. 

If completed, the installation would generate about 440 megawatts of energy per year, making it the largest urban solar farm in Spain. About a quarter of the energy will power 1,000 low-income households, and the rest will be used for municipal buildings, Euronews reports

Scientists uncover a new way to generate high heat from solar power

While today's solar panels generate energy to power local homes and businesses, the electric grid is just one part of the overall energy system that needs to move away from fossil fuels.

Industrial processes that rely on heat — think: glassmaking, steelmaking and aluminum smelting — consume about 25 percent of the world's energy. Existing solar technologies are generally not well suited for high-heat applications above 1,000 degrees Celsius, but a new proof-of-concept study could crack this limitation wide open. 

Researchers at ETH Zurich university in Switzerland used filters made from synthetic quartz and water to absorb infrared radiation from the sun and maximize the absorption of heat. While more research is needed, the quartz-water system they tested was able to "achieve the target temperature with higher efficiency," potentially opening the door for solar power in high-heat industrial applications in the future, the researchers wrote in the journal Device

The U.S. could see an even bigger solar boom as tariff holiday comes to a close

The United States imposes tariffs on solar panels imported from China, partly due to concerns of forced labor and partly as a means to temper Chinese dominance in the global solar market. U.S. government officials say Chinese solar companies were shifting operations to Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Malaysia as a way to evade these fees, and tariffs on panels imported from Southeast Asia came into force this month

That marks the end of a two-year tariff holiday in which U.S. solar developers were able to source panels from Southeast Asian countries fee-free. Developers stockpiled an estimated 35 gigawatts worth of imported solar panels over the past two years, which is more than the solar energy capacity added across the entire United States in 2023

Those developers now have just 180 days to use the panels, or they'll have to retroactively pay the tariffs on them. The time crunch could result in a "mini-boom in already red-hot U.S. solar installations" this year, Reuters reports

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni