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Solar vendors strive to lower costs amid setbacks

Posted: 07 Oct 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar panel? photovoltaic market? IEEE?

Amid uncertain markets and policies, solar panel makers are gearing up factories with an objective of pulling down costs to a competitive level.

One market watcher said she will review her forecasts for solar panels according to the financial crisis in the U.S., along with uncertainty about renewal of federal tax credits and a pullback of major solar plans in Spain.

"Without incentives, we don't have a market," said Paula Mints, principal analyst, Navigant Consulting, speaking at a solar event sponsored by the IEEE.

Other speakers also gave their insights about a lack of federal funds for research in solar energy. Tim Anderson, associate dean of research at the University of Florida, said he hopes this scenario will change soon.

"The impact in the academic community is that no one goes to do research in photovoltaics because there's no funding available," he added. "But the promise of more money to come is out there, and people are adjusting to take advantage of this," he noted.

Expansion toward better cost
On the commercial level, a group of companies is expanding production of solar cells toward driving mainstream costs. "We're building the equivalent of a large scale nuclear power plant per year," said Richard Swanson, president of SunPower Corp., one of the top 10 solar panel makers.

SunPower has recently completed a second plant capable of employing 400,000 wafers a day and has plans for plants in Malaysia that will use as many as a million wafers a day. "We know how to produce panels that cost $1.50 per watt by 2012, and we have detailed quarterly plans to achieve it," said Swanson.

Startup Signet Solar shipped its first solar panels in October from a new factory in Germany that will be able to develop by early 2009 sufficient panels each year to generate up to 130MW. The company plans to set up another plant in India soon.

"I think you will see a trend toward large 10MW to 20MW solar installations which will be very efficient," said Rajeeva Lahri, chief executive, Signet.

Applied Materials is supplying equipment to Signet and a handful of other panel makers now ramping up large scale operations, said Mark Pinto, chief technology officer and manager, energy group, Applied.

Waiting for a good cause
"It took 20 years to get to the point where a solar factory could produce 10MW of capacity a year, but by 2010 we will see gigawatt factories," Pinto said. "We are no longer a factor of 10 away from competing energy sources, we are within a factor of two or less today," he added.

Pinto discussed the outlook for Applied and the solar business in a video interview with EE Times.

"Although production has been rising rapidly, panel prices have actually increased in the last six years from historic lows from 2001 to 2002," said Mints.

"This is a market that was unprofitable until 2004," she said. "You can't blame them to hope for profits. The industry was willing to sell at a loss to keep share," she added.

New trends
Meanwhile, new and promising technologies are emerging. Russ Jones, business development manager, Boeing's Spectrolab, described his company's solar concentrators. They use 500 times optics to create solar cells as small as 1sqcm. "Lab versions of the gallium arsenide cells have hit record efficiency levels up to 40.7 percent, nearly twice the level of most commercial cells shipping today," he said.

"We believe 50 percent efficiency of the solar cells can be met in the coming decade," he added. "We think we have an interesting new vector to help solar cells succeed," he noted.

James Gee, founder and chief scientists, Advent Solar shared insights about a new design for cells and modules his company will create starting next year according to a research he conducted while at Sandia National Labs. The Ventura modules employ a pre-patterned electrical circuit sheet on the back of the module rather that a wire grid on its front to reduce manufacturing time and raise cell efficiency.

"Free power has been thrown away due to non-optimal designs," said Gee. "It's time for a completely new process that gets around the current fundamental limitations," he added.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times





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