The past five years have seen significant cost reductions in photovoltaics and a correspondingly strong increase in uptake, with photovoltaics now positioned to provide one of the lowest-cost options for future electricity generation. What is becoming clear as the industry develops is that area-related costs, such as costs of encapsulation and field-installation, are increasingly important components of the total costs of photovoltaic electricity generation, with this trend expected to continue. Improved energy-conversion efficiency directly reduces such costs, with increased manufacturing volume likely to drive down the additional costs associated with implementing higher efficiencies. This suggests the industry will evolve beyond the standard single-junction solar cells that currently dominate commercial production, where energy-conversion efficiencies are fundamentally constrained by Shockley–Queisser limits to practical values below 30%. This Review assesses the overall prospects for a range of approaches that can potentially exceed these limits, based on ultimate efficiency prospects, material requirements and developmental outlook.