Xtreme Concentrated Solar Power: if a magnifying glass is like lightning to ants, this would be their atomic bomb.
We already know that concentrated solar power (CSP) is shaking things up in the solar industry. A subset within the industry is turning up the heat. “Extreme” Concentrated solar magnifies intense sunlight onto a solar cell, at temperatures that could melt it, to boost efficiency for less money.
The holy grail of renewable energy is not just efficiency but competitive pricing. Most consumers don’t want to wait 5-10+ years to earn back their investment in energy savings, assuming that they can afford solar. Never mind the added value of generating some of your own energy. Utility-scale facilities hinge not only on cost, but infrastructure. If you build your solar/wind farm in the desert, transmission lines may not come out to meet you. So when someone claims to have a cheap, efficient solar technology, people pay attention.
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Extreme Concentrated Solar stands out because it claims to be affordable and very efficient. Unlike solar-thermal (CSP), which utilizes the heat of the sun, this technology still converts light into power (photo voltaic). So many solar companies have attempted to reduce cost by rising to industrial scale, but this method takes the opposite approach. XCPV (extreme concentrated photo voltaic) uses very small solar panels combined into a module design, and modules are infinitely scalable.
The most recent announcement comes from Sunrgi, which claims its XCPV system will “produce electricity at a wholesale cost of 5-cents per kWh” (via news release). Their system magnifies sunlight 2,000 times at over 3,000 degree Fahrenheit onto a small, top-of-the-line solar panel, which dramatically boosts the amount of energy the panel can produce. Since the system is in a module, it can be as big or small as you want. The modules also track the sun throughout the day to maximize power output, and they’re upgradable. That means if better solar panels hit the market in the future (or if theirs do get fried after all), you can switch them out. Another feature Sunrgi claims is an impressive efficiency rating of 37.5%. For the uninitiated, that might not sound like much, but consider that the world record in February, 2008 was 31.25% using CSP – on an unusually sunny day. But the whole system hinges on its cooling mechanism, described only as nanotech “goop”, to prevent the solar panels from melting. And that technology is still “proprietary”. In other words, they haven’t actually made commercial product yet.
Before you let your hopes dash to the wind (another future technology!?), let me set you at ease. Sunrgi hopes to bring their product to market in about a year, so we’re not talking about pipe dreams. These guys are serious, and they’re out to make some money at 5 cents/kwh. But fortunately for us all, this technology is not new, and Sunrgi is not the first to point a magnifying glass at a solar panel. The Aussies beat us to it.
It started out as the Sunball in 2005, but soon evolved into the Suncube. The Suncube also concentrates solar energy with an efficiency rating over 30%. It’s a modular system that tracks the sun and appears less bulky than the Sunrgi system.
The system comes to us from Green and Gold Energy of Adelaide, Australia, but before I provide the link, let me disclaim. Apparently, if you believe the word on the street, the website is the personal baby of GG&E’s founder. He’s very proud of his GG&E site. More important is the product: not only is GG&E producing XCVP modules around the world, but they’ve already signed a deal with Emcore, who will provide concentrated solar cells with 20 year warranties. Partner groups ES Systems in Korea just secured $28 millions dollars more worth of Emcore solar cells. More importantly, GG&E is building a manufacturing facility, and their product is already on the market.
So the exciting thing about Extreme Concentrated Photo Voltaics is the combination of high efficiency with low price. By magnifying the power of the sun, these companies are pushing the envelope at a time when energy prices are high. But these ventures are not without risk. Inadequate cooling of of the solar cells could result in decreased performance or melting. There’s also hurdles facing solar energy; the least of which is investing in manufacturing infrastructure, and transporting product. But the magic number here is 5 cents/ kwh. Mike Chino of Inhabitat.com notes:
“Craig Goodman, president of the National Energy marketers Association, has stated that “Solar power at 5 cents per kWh would be a world-changing breakthrough. It would make solar generation of electricity as affordable as generation from coal, natural gas, or other non-renewable sources, without require and subsidy.””
(edit: fixed some spelling and clarified the title)