The Forecast is Good for the Solar Industry

November 20, 2015 By Carl Weinschenk

solar-install-energy-manageThe U.S. Energy Department has allocated $22.7 million for 23 projects aimed at reducing the costs of solar energy.

Work being done by five companies – Amtech Systems (which was granted $930,664), CelLink Corp. ($2.5 million), Concurrent Design ($1 million), Nevados Engineering ($773,124) and Sunrun ($900,000) – is used by pv magazine to illustrate the types of research that is ongoing and that the government is encouraging.

These seem to be good days for the solar industry. The profile of renewables is rising in general and, in particular, solar and wind sources are clearly gaining traction.

In September, GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association released second quarter growth numbers for the solar industry. The organizations found that the U.S. solar industry installed 1,393 MW of solar photovoltaic capacity during the quarter and overall passed the 20 GW milestone during the three-month period.

The profile, however, is a bit lopsided: The residential market installed 473 MW and grew 70 percent compared to the year-ago quarter. However, the non-residential market contracted 33 percent.

The weakness in the non-residential market notwithstanding, the report was good news for the solar segment. While the grants from the government are aimed at reducing the cost of photovoltaics, research is ongoing on improving the technology itself.

Last week, the DoE released the “2015 Revolution…Now” report. The related press release said that it was to coincide with the International Energy Agency’s Ministerial in Paris, which is a related to the COP21 UN Climate Negotiations. The release highlights the progress that is being made in solar

The 2015 update shows that dramatic cost reductions are continuing to drive the adoption of clean energy technologies. The report covers the rapid growth of photovoltaic (PV) solar modules for both large, utility-scale PV plants, and smaller, rooftop, distributed PV systems that have achieved significant deployment nationwide.  DOE continues to invest in research and development for these technologies in addition to reducing market barriers in order to make these clean energy technologies even more cost-effective and widely available across the United States.

The technology itself is evolving. A race is underway to create the most efficient photovoltaic technology. SolarCity, Panasonic and other companies are looking at ways to increase efficiency within the confines of today’s technology. To a great extent, it is a typical battle of the press releases. The efficiency levels claimed by the companies generally are in the mid 20-percent range.

There are research efforts that go beyond making small and incremental improvements on current technology. Tech.co this week posted a feature that looked at five ways in which solar technology is evolving. A simple method that directly addresses improving the yield of cells is the mirrored solar dishes. Use of mirrors, the author writes, increases the efficiency of the cell by concentrating the sunlight on a small area.

Even deeper changes to the technology are likely in the not-too-distant future. SPIE – an organization dedicated to taking an “interdisciplinary approach to the science and application of light” – offers a synopsis of a comprehensive paper the organization has posted. The story says that the power conversion efficiency of silicon, the material upon which commercialized photovoltaics is based, “appears to be 25.6%,” which means that the current technology is just about maxed out.

The good news for proponents of photovoltaics is that there are a number of other materials that will easily pass that level. For instance, multi-junction solar cells (which the story says produces electric current in response to different wavelengths of light) have achieved efficiency of 37.9 percent.

The gating factors are the research and the cost of the new technology. That’s good news. There is a lot of money on the table, which means that lots of very smart people – such as researchers at the University of Connecticut who are developing a gel that improves the ability of photovoltaic cells to absorb energy — will be working through the technology. Since there are a multiple approaches, it is almost certain that approaches will be found that over time will reduce the costs and become widely commercialized.

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