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Solar power is shining in the UK
03:17 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

In December 2011, BP shut down its solar energy arm, BP Solar, claiming the business could not make any money.

Fast forward six years, and the oil and gas giant has once again thrown its weight behind the power of the sun. Last month, it announced a $200 million stake in a company called Lightsource, Europe’s largest solar development company.

BP’s investment marked a move back into a renewable energy sector it had all but forgotten.

“We believe the low-carbon transition is real, it’s happening, and we have a dual mission here: providing the energy the world needs in the way that it wants,” said Dev Sanyal, BP’s CEO of Alternative Energy for BP. “As you look forward, you’re also seeing solar becoming the fastest part of the energy complex.”

Sanyal said BP’s investment would help Lightsource expand worldwide and it comes during a time of explosive growth for the solar industry. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global solar capacity has more than tripled between 2012 and 2016, and grew by nearly a third in 2016 alone. Today, solar energy employs more people in the United States than oil, coal and gas combined, according to the Department of Energy.

The idea of a solar boom in a country like the UK runs counter to the country’s reputation as more soggy than sunny. Still, that’s exactly what’s happened. In 2010, the solar industry in the UK was virtually non-existent. Today, it has the capacity to power up to 3 million UK homes. Since 2015, UK-based Good Energy has developed 8 solar farms across the country.

“It’s the speed at which the technology prices have come down that has really surprised some of the larger parts of the industry,” says CEO Juliet Davenport. “One of the panels just over 10 years ago would have cost $1,000. Today they are closer to 80 dollars.”

The price drop is thanks to China, where the government has encouraged rapid expansion of both solar panel manufacturing and installation. The country nearly doubled its solar capacity in 2016, and now produces about half of the world’s solar panels, according to the IEA.

Oxford University scientist Dr. Henry Snaith said prices could still sink further if the industry shifted away from using silicon, traditionally the main ingredient in most solar panels. In his lab, Snaith has harvested minerals called perovskites that he says could deliver power twice as efficiently than the current silicon-based solar cells on the market.

“If we move away from silicon and just process perovskite on its own, we can process it directly on glass,” said Snaith, who just received a €15 million loan from the European Investment Bank to bring perovskite-coated solar panels to market. “So, you can imagine having see-through windows that are also producing power and we can imagine making clothing that’s coated in perovskite PV. This may be especially suitable for the automotive industry as well, for coating electric vehicles in photovoltaic converters.”