After the ‘sunrush’: what comes next for solar power?

The fall in costs that has driven solar’s rapid growth is slowing – but scientists are exploring the next generation of materials that can harness more energy from the sun

A robot handles a solar panel on the module production line in Singapore.
 A robot handles a solar panel on the module production line in Singapore. Photograph: Nicky Loh/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Some people call it the “sunrush”: a 25-year period in which solar power has grown exponentially, transforming the technology from rarefied oddity to the world’s fastest-growing energy source.

This surge, which saw 100MW of capacity in 1992 rocket to more than 300GW in 2016, has been largely driven by falling costs, which plunged 86% between 2009 and 2017.

China, the world leader in building and installing solar panels, added a record-breaking amount of capacity last year. The technology is even setting records in the grey UK: at one point last summer even providing more power than the nation’s nuclear power stations.

But with some experts asking whether the cost reduction curve of solar is drawing to an end, there are questions over whether stratospheric growth can be maintained.

And while more energy from the sun hits the Earth’s surface in an hour than humanity uses each year, can today’s silicon-based solar meet our long-term power needs?

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