Griffith Hack Clean & Sustainable Technologies

Emerging commercial solar technologies by Griffith Hack
June 22, 2010, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Feature

There is much less installed solar than wind power.  This is because wind costs less.  However, the price of solar power generation is falling rapidly – photovoltaic (PV) modules prices dropped by 40% in 2009 – which is stimulating demand for solar. The compound annual growth rate for the grid-tied PV market is around 50%. Predictions of the arrival of “grid parity” – the point at which photovoltaic electricity is equal to or cheaper than grid power – range from ‘any time now’ to ‘the next 5-10 years’ in the US, Australia and Southern Europe.  Some commentators believe that when grid parity is achieved the demand for solar power may well exceed supply.

Several emerging solar technologies are promising to push down costs.  These technologies are being commercialised now. Large investments have been committed. The emerging technologies are, in many cases, a dramatic shift from the standard technologies that have driven the industry to date, and yet they are commercially focused.

One emerging technology is the printing of solar photovoltaic structures on sheets made from, for example, plastic.  The printing may be performed roll-to-roll, similar to how newsprint is printed. The achievable rates of production are staggering in comparison to the standard silicon wafer technologies, because roll-to-roll production is a continuous process. One company commercialising the technology is Solexant, which has recently raised US$41.5 million.  The final product is a flexible sheet having inorganic nanocrystals as the active photovoltaic material. Solexant expects to be able to sell the sheets at prices of around $0.5 per each Watt.  This is about half the lowest price for PV on offer now.  In the US, for example, gird parity is considered to be around $1 per Watt.  Another company, Nanosolar, is developing a process to print solar cells made out of copper indium gallium selenide instead of the staple material, silicon. Over $100 million has been invested into Nanosolar.

The cost of PV modules is not the total cost of a PV system. Installation of the modules and their supporting structures are approximately half the cost of a domestic-sized PV system.  Many companies are attempting to integrate PV modules into building products because this eliminates some materials and labour, reducing the total system cost. Konarka, for example, is using inkjet technology to produce plastic photovoltaic sheets that it will then integrate into, for example, windows, skylights, handrails, shades, and façades. Another company, Red Solar, is developing a thin-film cadmium telluride PV system for asphalt shingled sloped roofs. The system is “plug-and-play” and “snap-in/snap-out”. 

One third of all greenhouse gas emissions are associated with buildings, and integrating PV may significantly reduce building emissions. Additionally, a building having integrated PV may be more aesthetically acceptable than a building retrofitted with PV panels.  Aesthetics are important to many people who may otherwise not purchase a PV system. Integrated PV may significantly increase building value.

Another emerging technology is concentrated photovoltaic systems (CPV).  The technology is attracting a lot of attention because of claims that it is cheaper than other solar technologies and does not consume water, like some solar thermal concentrator technologies do.  This technology collects sunlight that falls on a collector, the collector concentrates the sunlight onto a PV active region of relatively smaller area. Thus, the amount of active PV active material, which is expensive, is greatly reduced. One company, Skyline Solar, uses a curved mirror to concentrate the sunlight. Another concentrated PV company, Amonix, uses lenses to concentrate the sunlight.  Amonix has recently attracted large amounts of funding.

These are just some of the emerging solar technologies that are driving down costs and bringing forward the arrival of grid parity.  The amount of solar innovation is staggering. Many of these companies have large numbers of patents in position to protect their inventions, and to further their commercial interests.  Skyline Solar, for example, has at least 10 patent applications, which is a far greater number than almost any other Australian solar company.  However, unless Australian companies improve their patent positions, they are increasingly likely to be left behind; e.g. they will not have bargaining chips to support their commercial roll-out.

In practice, it is unlikely that any single technology will be the dominant and, if Australian players establish global IP positions, they too can be winners in this race.

Justin Blows


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