The future of solar

Solar power continues to be a key player in the global energy mix. In 2022, wind and solar schemes generated more power in the EU than gas and coal1. And as government requirements drive us to net zero by 2050 and electricity decarbonisation by 2035, solar energy will play a crucial role.  

Our solar experts explore the exciting solar projects and initiatives happening in the UK and across the globe, and an insight into what the future of solar power may hold.  


Jon Edinborough, Associate Director - Utility Infrastructure
Geoff Dewick, Aviation Director

Solar in demand

As solar energy becomes more efficient and economical, year-on-year demand for solar schemes is increasing exponentially and more solar farm applications are being submitted. Solar technology also continues to evolve, with countries around the world developing innovative solutions, including floating solar farms on rivers, and solar carports in car parks.

Solar panels in foreground, airplane flying in the background

Technology improvements

As technology improves solar panels are becoming more efficient and economical. According to the UK government, solar is now 88% cheaper than it was a decade ago. 

There has already been a shift towards higher-efficiency modules, which can generate 1.5 times more power than existing, similarly sized, modules.

There are also production innovations in the pipeline that will reduce the amounts of costly materials such as silver and silicon used in the manufacture of solar cells, as well as innovations such as bifacial modules, which allow panels to capture solar energy from both sides. 

Such developments will ensure that solar energy will continue to become cheaper, more accessible, and ultimately, more attractive.

Solar farms on government-owned land

‘Project Prometheus’, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) project that focuses on increasing renewable energy, has resulted in the development of two solar farms that were completed in 2021. These developments are the first of four “pilot” solar photovoltaic farms to be built as part of the project. According to the MoD, the developments will realise a combined £1M in efficiency savings and save circa 2,000 tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. These cost savings will be reinvested into Army infrastructure and help reach their goal of Net Zero by 2050. The MoD’s reference to the sites as “pilots”, suggests that there may be more to follow.

Local Councils are also starting to build large solar farms on council-owned land to help them achieve their net zero carbon objectives. According to Solar Power Portal, more than 500 Megawatts (MW) of solar farms on land are owned by Local Councils. Almost 200MW of solar farm capacity has already been built, with the three largest solar farms completed within the past couple of years. And over 100MW has also been approved and is set to be built before the end of 2023. 

The increase in applications and approvals to develop solar farms on government-owned land is particularly noteworthy given the controversy surrounding Liz Truss’s move to ban solar farms from most of England’s farmland in October 2022. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also pledged in an article for the Daily Telegraph in August 2022 that: “On my watch, we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms. Instead, we should be making sure that solar panels are installed on commercial buildings, on sheds and on properties”.  

However, it’s worth noting that the move last autumn to re-calibrate “best and most versatile land” to include Grade 3b was not progressed, and it remains a decision in the planning balance as to what level of impact upon higher quality land is acceptable, given the urgent and pressing need to support the growth of renewables. The British Energy Security Strategy proposes a five-fold increase in solar energy, moving from 14 Gigawatts (GW) to 70GW of solar development by 2035.

Innovative uses of solar technology

Innovative projects in the UK

London is home to the world’s largest solar bridge. Blackfriars Solar Bridge opened in 2014 and with 4,400 solar PV panels, is the largest solar array in London.

Looking ahead, there are plans in place for an exciting range of solar projects from solar carports, to plans to install solar PV on the roof of London Stadium, and plans to develop the UK’s largest solar farm in Oxfordshire, which RPS is acting as lead consultancy for, and which would deliver 840MW to the National Grid.

France's car park solar farms

France is on a renewable energy drive.

To encourage solar development, they have financial incentives in place for individuals and businesses who install solar panels on their properties. Any existing and proposed car parks with over 80 parking spaces will be required to install solar panels. The owners of qualifying car parks have between three and five years to comply with the measures. The French government believes the measure could generate up to 11GW of power.

Like roof-mounted solar parks, car park solar farms make use of otherwise unused space and can generate electricity close to where needed. This is useful in urban areas where there's limited land available for large solar farms, as well as reducing grid demand and greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar car park

Solar airport developments

Airports across the globe are increasingly adopting solar power, and some have built on their investment in solar infrastructure over the years and become fully solar-powered. Cochin International Airport in Kochi, India, was the first solar-powered airport in the world, with a total output of 18 GWh per year. This allows the airport to be completely reliant on solar energy, feeding back power to the Kerala State Electricity Board grid and buying it back when needed.

Edmonton International Airport, Canada (EIA) is building the world’s largest airport solar farm with over 300,000 panels. This will make it completely self-sufficient whilst also powering the local area. Developer, Alpin Sun, predicts that it will offset 106,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

In the past, there have been concerns over the weather negatively impacting solar energy production, particularly in places like Edmonton where snowfall is very high. To disperse concerns, EIA has stated that the top layer of the solar panels will have a non-adherent coating to prevent snow from sticking to it, as well as East-West panels that move with the sun which will help shift any snow.

Solar railways

Switzerland is currently developing solar panels for its railway tracks. The removeable, metre-wide panels will cover the unused space between the rails. A pilot project testing the panels is set to take place on a section of the railway near Buttes in western Switzerland. If successful, and the panels are rolled out to the country’s entire rail network, it is estimated that the panels could supply 2% of Switzerland’s electricity.

Floating solar panels

Floating solar developments are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in Asia. Typically located on bodies of water, reservoirs, and ponds, floating solar panels have the added advantage of producing a cooling effect to increase the efficiency of the panels.

China is host to the world’s largest floating solar farm, which is constructed on a reservoir. In 2022, the floating PV array was linked to a 100MW wind farm and battery storage to form the Huaneng Dezhou Dingzhuang Integrated Wind and Solar Energy Storage project at the site in Shandong province.

This site will soon be superseded by a 600MW site that is currently in development in India.

Aerial shot of floating solar panels over the sea

Futuristic solar


Looking further ahead, there have already been steps towards a number of cutting-edge uses of solar, such as:  

Solar powered skyscrapers

In 2020, a Californian science start-up secured a $30 million funding round to develop and manufacture windows that capture and convert sunlight into solar energy, aiming to be producing at scale by 2024. This technology has the potential to revolutionise how we build our cities.

Solar in space

The USA and China are investing in space-based solar power (SBSP). The SBSP technological process works by using solar panels to collect solar energy in space with reflectors or inflatable mirrors that direct solar radiation onto solar panels, and then beam it onto Earth through a microwave or laser.

This approach allows for continuous power regeneration and results in barely any hazardous waste to our environment. Space-based solar panels can generate 2,000 GW of power constantly.

High research and development costs mean it’s likely this project will be ongoing for a number of years.

Solar trees

Solar trees are what you might presume - structures designed to look like trees, but with solar panels attached to their ‘branches’ instead of ‘leaves’. They are best suited for urban areas with limited space, with the added benefit of a source of shade, and often provide a sculptural quality for areas of public realm.

A well-known example is the Solar Supertrees in Singapore - vertical gardens designed to mimic the ecological functions of real trees. Each structure is outfitted with an array of photovoltaic cells that collect and store solar energy throughout the day – power that’s used to illuminate the garden when the sun sets each night. Their unique shape also serves as rainwater collectors to help funnel water to fountain displays and irrigation systems.

Solar trees in Singapore

As the pressure to achieve net zero carbon intensifies and the demand for energy security increases, solar is set to remain an attractive source of renewable energy. As technology and innovation evolve, we can expect exciting developments for the future of solar.

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