Solar PV & Renewable Energy prices

Top 3 Game Changing Innovations in Solar Technology: 2012 Edition

While currently the US solar industry may be experiencing some tumultuous times as a result of decreasing government support, lowered demand, and intense competition from Asian solar manufacturers, one thing is clear – the industry still has a shot at surviving and flourishing because solar technological innovations keep rolling in. According to Lux Research, new solar technologies that are being developed today will replace what is currently in use within 3-6 years. Innovations in materials and cell design will provide more efficient and less expensive alternative to the solar panels sold on the market today. Not only will these innovations be beneficial to consumers by bringing costs down to less than a $ 1 per watt, they will enable solar companies and manufacturers to improve their profit margins, which is the key to staying in business and growing. Ultimately, for the industry to mature, it needs to reduce their capital and materials costs and increase profits, and there are a number of innovations that have the market potential to make this shift happen.

These inventions are highly likely to propel the industry forward because they offer efficiency improvements and cost reductions of already existing systems and do not require major shifts in infrastructure that is currently in place. Check out our list of top 5 technological innovations that will be game changers for the solar industry.

1. Direct Solidification

Typically, silicon wafers are cut from large sheets of solidified solar, which results in substantial materials loss as well as higher costs associated with it. Sometimes as much as 50 % of the silicon is wasted. An alternative to this method is direct solidification which uses molten silicon to pour wafers directly thereby eliminating losses from sawing. Several companies are working on this innovation, and 1366 Technologies, which is an industry leader in direct solidification, manufacturing standard, 156mm multi-crystalline wafer directly from molten silicon. The company is scheduled to introduce lower-cost wafers to the market by 2013. This innovation is projected to have a market size of up to 600 million dollars

2. Anti-reflective and light-trapping coatings

Anti-reflective and light-trapping coatings on solar panels are aimed at improving energy output without making fundamental changes to cell design or materials. A leader in this space is the Black Silicon Natcore Technology, which will most likely be commercialized this year. Natcore’s Black anti-reflective coating has an average reflectance in the visible and near-infrared region of the solar spectrum of 0.3%, which makes it the “blackest” silicon solar cell surface ever recorded. According to Natcore’s research, compared with standard production cells which are now in use, this represents a tenfold reduction in reflectance over that portion of the spectrum, which is the source of close to 80% of the usable power that can be derived from from the sun. When it comes to solar cells, “blackness” is very desirable because it indicates that incident light is absorbed for conversion to energy rather than reflected into the atmosphere and wasted. This technology will bring the industry one step closer to realizing high – efficiency cost-effective solar power. The projected market size for this new technology is over 600 million dollars.

3. Solar thin-film: Epitaxial – Si and CZTS

The reality is that for solar electricity to compete with coal-fired power, silicon solar cells must become even cheaper and more efficient. In conventional solar cells used by the industry today, silicon accounts for about two-thirds of the materials costs – manufacturing a standard cell today requires 6.5 grams of silicon per watt of capacity, and costs about 40 cents. As a result, the market price of solar cells is around 85 cents per watt. At this price, its practically impossible for most companies to make a profit, which is precisely why so many have gone bankrupt in the last couple of years.

A step up from silicone is solar thin-film, primarily made with copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS). The problem with this technology is that Gallium is already expensive and indium’s increased usage in a wide variety of technologies is driving its cost up as well. Moreover, both indium and gallium are rare earth minerals, which makes them inherently expensive and subject to shortages. Although CIGS is an improvement over an almost obsolete and inefficient thin film amorphous silicon (a-Si) technology, new and emerging thin films such as Epitaxial-Si and CZTS have the potential to offer even higher efficiencies than CIGS.

Epitaxial-Si is thin monocrystalline silicon. Epitaxial silicon solar cells are based on a very high-quality thin epitaxial layer on top of a highly-doped, inactive silicon substrate. The advantage of this technology is that in combines much of the process and benefits of bulk silicon solar cells, but using a much cheaper substrate. This technology is still in the process of being developed and may be available on the market within the next few years. One company actively working on and testing Epitaxial-Si solar cells is Crystal Solar, based in Santa Clara, California. The company has received a second round of multi – million funding and plans to open a small-scale pilot factory by early 2013.

CZTS is copper zinc tin sulfide cell technology, which has drawn much interest and attention over the past couple of years because of a promising possibility to replace CIGS with cheaper materials. This technology was invented by a team of chemical engineers at Perdue University, Indiana, who were guided by the idea that only solar cells producing terawatts at 50 cents per peak watt of electricity will make solar power competitive with grid electricity. The Department of Energy allotted a $750,000 grant for the engineers to come up with this cell and its prototype to be mass-produced. Currently, such big shots as IBM and Dupont are looking into investing in CZTS. While the technology still faces issues of thermal instability, it is projected to reach commercial scale and competitive thin-film prices within the next five years.

Levchik (Leo) is a renewable energy activist from Boston, MA, and has been involved with alternative energy and green construction since 2004.

In 2009, Leo and his green roofing company ( sponsored Boston’s Solar Decathlon Team, providing materials and installation labor to install a cool white roof on the top of Curio home (Joint effort by Tufts University and Boston Architecture College) – more info about the project here.

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Written by Levchik B

Posted on June 11th, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Solar Industry

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