By Dr Harry Zervos, technology analyst, IDTechEx
6 July 2012 – Today there are multiple devices available for harnessing solar energy. Each device offers a different set of characteristics. Wafer-based devices consist of mono or polycrystalline and are the most mature technology due to the experience borrowed from the microelectronics industry. They also offer very competitive production costs (<1 $/W) and long lifetimes (25+ years guaranteed but most likely operational into 35+ years). Currently, they hold about 80% of the total market share of photovoltaics.
Looking at the non-wafer based portion of the market, IDTechEx estimates that the organic photovoltaics (OPV) market today is worth US$4.6 million and forecasts that it will rise to US$630 million in 2022. Organic photovoltaics do not offer very high efficiency levels or lifetime, two issues that can be very limiting. Instead, OPVs can offer good form factor, high-indoor performance, large-scale manufacture, and low capital expenditure.
The efficiency and lifetime impediments in organic photovoltaics have been thoroughly studied by IDTechEx, with input from all of the leading developers of the technology. Its analysis suggests that no breakthrough in technology is expected to occur and improvements take place slowly and linearly in time. This holds true in spite of the fact that a diverse range of active materials can be envisioned and synthesised for use in OPV cells. This suggests that OPVs will struggle to outperform more established technologies of today. This is because, for example, crystalline silicon already offers 16% – 18% efficiency in production volumes, and lifetime in excess of 25 years.
The handicap in lifetime and efficiency will force OPV developers to play on other strengths. The market growth for OPV will be predominantly driven by electronics in apparel, posters and PoP smart labels, and off-grid developing world applications. OPV will nonetheless remain a small player on the greater photovoltaic scene, obtaining total market shares of less than 1.5%. After the bankruptcy of Konarka in June 2012, one of the leading companies in OPV development, it is now up to the remaining companies involved in the space, such as Heliatek, Solarmer or Disa Solar to continue the effort towards commercialisation. Key for these companies will be to identify the right markets, even if they initially are small, niche segments, to transition from investor-funded start-up to a profitable corporation.