Posts tagged with: nanosolar

George Monbiot’s recent guardian article got me thinking about the nature of research and development in the photovoltaic industry and how R&D has been impacted by feed-in tariffs in Europe.

Having worked in photovoltaic research both in a university laboratory and industry I have some experience of R&D. The field of photovoltaics certainly falls into the category of applied research, meaning that the ultimate goal is not only to gain new knowledge, but to bring new products onto the market that improve the world around us. To achieve this however, there is a long journey that must be undertaken – getting a new technology onto the market is a multi-stage process.

Of course every new idea is different, and no new technology undergoes the same journey (whatever people say, there is no clear line between the terms ‘research’ and ‘development’). There are some features however, that are common in technology commercialization processes:

At the beginning is painstaking fundamental research in a laboratory. This may not even involve making a prototype but for example may simply consist of measuring an effect in some new material. Many, many ideas are proposed, tried and rejected for every idea that makes it past the first step. This is the most creative part of the process, which is why it attracts so many brilliant minds, but the most that can be achieved here in real terms, is some suggestion that a concept has a chance in the outside world.

From the initial conception of a new technology, extensive tests must be carried out in the lab to show feasibility of the idea. Once all the tests that can be done in a laboratory have been done, it is time for the research to outwards and beyond, and into the development stage. The challenge is to take the small-scale prototype closer and closer to what might be considered a real product using a real manufacturing process. In the photovoltaic cells, those made in the laboratory are often tiny (smaller than a postage stamp) and fabricated using methods that are totally unsuitable for large-scale production.

Laboratory research however, is relatively very cheap compared to the later stages of development. The big hurdle for scientists is to find the money to pay for the next step in the development journey.

Whilst more money in basic research is always welcome, there are a number of defined funding bodies that scientists can apply to for laboratory research. UK universities have so far been fairly successful in attracting funding to expand research for renewable energy research in recent years. What is much less clear however, is who will pay for the later stages of development when a technology is ready to leave the lab, but still has someway to go before it is proven on a large scale. Often there are a lot of big technical challenges to go from small to large-scale manufacturing, and one can never be sure that it will be viable at all until you try. With new types of solar cells, often this expansion happens in several stages, with multiple, progressively larger production lines being built. It can get VERY expensive.

This gradual scaling up of a laboratory process is not usually paid for by government sponsored R&D programs – building a manufacturing plant is seen as a commercial exercise. Scientists are therefore forced to go to the private sector and do battle with venture capitalists and the like to get the necessary funding. For this reason, many promising technologies never make it out of universities at all.

The painful truth is that the scale-up process is absolutely critical to getting a technology onto the market. Without this step you may as well not have bothered inventing the technology in the first place. I know from experience that there are hundreds of extremely exciting new types of solar cells sitting waiting in laboratories around the world. The bottleneck is and always has been raising finance for the expensive scale-up process.

In the last few years however, since 2004-5, there has in fact been a remarkable inflow of venture capital money in solar energy. Certainly not all, but many solar companies have managed to raise money to take their technologies from the lab to manufacturing. Venture capitalists (particularly from Silicon Valley) and corporations across the world have poured billions into the hands of solar cell scientists to take their technology on to the next step.

What caused this sudden surge in investment in solar energy? Certainly it wasn’t a shortage of revolutionary ideas for solar cells – the concepts that were given financing have been around since the 1970s. My belief is that it was a direct result of the German feed-in tariff that was implemented in its current form in 2004, shortly before the investment frenzy began.

Almost overnight, Germany became the single largest solar energy market in the world, and has remained so ever since. In 2009, over 60% of all the world’s solar panels were installed in Germany. The feed-in tariff guarantees a market for solar energy products and this is exactly what investors are looking for to reduce the risk of a new technology. There will always be technical risk, but the feed-in tariff means that at least if a new technology does work, investors can be sure there will be someone to buy it.

Many of these internationally funded new solar panel companies decided to build their first production lines in Germany. Examples of such companies are First Solar, Nanosolar, Avancis, Q-Cells, Sunfilm, Signet Solar, ErSol, Johanna Solar… I could go on. Each of these companies has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to build factories that produce new types of solar panels. Even the companies not located in Germany have all open their first sales office there.

Of course not all these companies will be successful, in fact Sunfilm recently announced it would go into administration, but that is the nature of developing technologies. The process of designing and inventing a new factory, and then using it to make good reliable solar panels takes such a long time. Despite this, First Solar has just entered the S&P500 with billions in annual revenue, and several others are in their footsteps. There is risk, but without trying you don`t have a chance. The prize is great for those who succeed, and often the experience an expertise gained in failure is not without value.

My opinion is that the feed-in tariff is great for encouraging investment in the scale-up stage of R&D, which is very poorly funded in the UK. Laboratory research will continue, and governments should not cut back spending on universities. However, if a government wants this early stage research to eventually make an impact on the economy, they have to find a way to support expansion stage R&D, and introducing a feed-in tariff is very good way to do this.

The long discussed changes to the German feed-in tariff are still in debate after a report released Monday by Germany’s regional government assembly called for a relaxation of the planned cuts. This means that the changes, which were originally planned to come into effect in April and have already been pushed back until June, may be yet again delayed. The bill we continue to pass its way through the German parliament over the next two months.

Whilst everyone appears to be in agreement that the feed-in tariff should be lowered faster than originally planned in light of dramatic price reductions in PV systems, there is controversy over much it should be lowered and how the structure of the tariff should be changed. There is a big debate for instance, concerning the level of a ‘self-consumption’ bonus, whereby producers of solar energy are rewarded for any electricity they use themselves rather than export to the grid. Also in discussion is the difference in feed-in tariff paid to ground mounted solar farms compared to rooftop installations.

Meanwhile, solar installers are experiencing a continuation of strong demand. At the end of 2009, the rate of new installations reached an all-time high with around 2GW installed in the fourth quarter alone as customers rushed to install before the 2009/2010 feed-in tariff drop. The threat of new cuts in the feed-in tariff are only increasing the incentive to install in 2010.

An interesting pattern is emerging, whereby the PV market experiences surges in the run-up to a feed-in tariff change. This cyclical pattern creates extra incentive for the government to decrease the feed-in tariff and looking at the market it seems that prices are set to fall further over the next year or so. These factors may well push us into the realm of parity with retail electricity prices in Germany by 2013.

In the UK, the feed-in tariff is unlikely to be altered before 2012, although we will carefully scrutinize the aftermath of the forthcoming general election. Already commentators in the UK are speculating that the UK may experience its own mini ‘PV-rush’ in the run up to 2012. However, as Germany has repeatedly shown, one ‘PV rush’ can lead to another.

Several of the thin film PV manufacturers (see previous article) have announced ambitious plans to start selling their products in large volumes. In particular, NanoSolar, Solibro, Solar Frontier and MiaSole are makers of the new “CIGS” type of modules that promise to achieve high efficiency and lower cost than the thin film modules currently available. It will take time for these new technologies to be accepted for their reliability, but it is likely that at least some of the companies offering these products will succeed. News has been announced that a solar park using Nanosolar’s modules is already under construction.

Several of the developers of large PV projects in Germany, such as Phoenix Solar and Gehrlicher, are currently testing new technologies whilst at the same time being cautious about their forecasts for the German market. Phoenix Solar recently announced that it cannot provide details of its development strategy until the details of the German feed-in tariff have been finalized.

These developments should act to further decrease the price of PV.

Good question. There is a huge amount of innovation happening everywhere in renewable energy and although solar technology has evolved rapidly in the last few years there is still a long way to go. There are lots of different aspects of a photovoltaic system that can be improved, and I will cover as many of them as I can on these pages.

First of all though, what is the basis on which we can judge these improvements? What is the ultimate goal here? Everyone can have their own opinion, but my ambition is to see solar energy compete economically with conventional energy sources, and for that to happen requires just one thing, lower cost of energy. Now you can get to lower cost of energy either by reducing the cost of the solar energy system or by increasing the amount of energy you get out of it. As we shall see, people everywhere are coming up with a lot of cool technology to go down both of these routes, but lets start with a company that I like called Nanosolar, who may eventually make the key step that makes solar power cheaper than coal.

First a bit of background: Solar panels are the most expensive part of a Solar electricity system, making up between half to two thirds of all the upfront costs. Most solar panels (sometimes called photovoltaic panels) are made from 50 or so ‘solar cells’ which are thin slices of silicon crystals specially treated so that they can turn sunlight into electricity. Its basically the same process that’s used to make electronic chips, which is fine for making tiny things that go inside your computer, but quite expensive for covering a small fraction of the earth’s surface with. Therefore a phenomenal amount of research has and is being done to find cheaper alternatives. So far the leading candidate for a replacement is the called ‘thin-film’ solar cell. In this case you start with flat panel of material such as glass, and coat the whole thing in a series of super-thin electronic layers that convert the sunlight into electricity. This process is cheaper than making normal silicon panels, however they are not as efficient at producing electricity.

Nanosolar are a frontrunner in developing thin film solar panels and are taking the technology to the next level. Most makers of thin-film solar panels need to use big vacuum chambers to deposit the semiconductor and can only process one panel at a time. Not so Nanosolar; they’ve cleverly developed a special electronic ink that they can literally ‘print’ onto big rolls of flexible metal sheets. Their factory in Silicon Valley looks very similar to a newspaper printing press – it’s much more suited to covering large areas.

When running at full speed the printing press should be able to cover XX football fields a day. Once the electronic layers have been printed on the foil they are cut into 6-inch squares and flown to another, newly opened factory in Germany where they are laid out into modules sandwiched in glass. Nanosolar claim their process is much cheaper than existing manufacturers out there, so cheap that it doesn’t matter that their panels are less efficient than traditional silicon solar panels. If this is really true be good news for consumers in the future, as Nanosolar could significantly bring down the price of solar panels.

Its not all plain-sailing for the US company however. They’ve been working on their process for nearly ten years and so far spent around half a billion dollars and have very little in the way of earnings. They’ll have to sell a lot of solar panels before their investors can start to relax. As with all new technologies, it takes time for customers to overcome reliability concerns, so getting to high sales volumes may take a bit of time.

Whether it’s Nanosolar that succeeds or one of the few dozen other firms pursuing similar strategies is not so important. What is important is that technology makes solar power economically viable without subsidies, and as we shall discuss on this blog, there are a lot of people out there dedicated to making that happen.