20 July 2012 – Innovation is key to the success of solar energy as a mainstream source of power in the future, says a new report by energy expert GlobalData. The past three decades have witnessed a great number of solar energy innovations that made solar power cheaper, but further innovation is necessary for it to compete with other conventional or alternative energy sources.
Dramatic falls in solar module prices, from US$5/W in 2000 to nearly US$1/W in 2012, were the result of technological innovations and the support of various governments. However, photovoltaic (PV) energy still remains the most expensive form of renewable generation. While a 1.0 MW wind farm costs less than US$1.4 million to set up, and displays 30% efficiency, a 1.0 MW solar plant costs about US$3 million and displays much lower efficiency. If solar energy is to compete with other technologies, innovation must further drive down costs of PV systems, GlobalData says.
Most research into solar energy has focused on material sciences, aiming to either increase the output of a panel, or reduce the cost of a panel, both leading to an overall decrease in generating costs. Thin film technology is a vital solar energy innovation, and has been around for decades, but was confined to small applications such as calculators due to its low efficiency levels in early stages of development.
However, thin-film as a commercial utility scale PV technology has come a long way in the last decade. Companies such as First Solar, which use Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) instead of silicon, display efficiencies beyond 17%, are being adopted by power plants with no space constraints as the modules are cheap enough to make the cost–efficiency trade off beneficial.
Currently, thin-film technology is facing one of its biggest challenges, as the price of silicon based PV is at an all time low and is posing a serious threat to the cost advantage enjoyed by thin-film manufacturers. Some thin-film companies have already filed for bankruptcy, and others have lost market position in the last year. There is an urgent need for thin-film companies to go back to drawing board and invest in research and development, in order to come up with new innovations that will enable them to compete with silicon based technology.
One potential solar power advancement is being created by crystalline technology major Sanyo, which is designing a bifacial c-Si solar panel that can produce an extra 30% output from sunlight hitting the back of the solar panel. Several projects are also underway to find ways to capture the infrared part of the spectrum, which could raise a cell’s absorption limit from the current 40% to 63%. However, this development is still in the research stage and could take a long time to reach the market.