Up And Coming Solar PV Innovators Aim To Grow Markets, Drive Costs Even Lower

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Industry players and the Department of Energy’s renewable energy initiatives are focusing in on the soft costs of having solar photovoltaic (PV) power systems installed given the sharp drops in cost of solar PV equipment experienced in recent years; soft costs such as permitting, installation, and operations and maintenance.

That by no means implies that equipment cost reductions have reached their limit, or that entrepreneurial start-ups and large and established solar PV equipment suppliers are slackening the pace of innovation.

Two young California solar PV companies adding momentum to the solar PV innovation and equipment cost reduction drive made business news headlines this week. Sunnyvale-based Alta Devices produces the thinnest, highest efficiency flexible thin-film PV cells on the market, while Santa Clara’s Crystal Solar is commercializing a vapor deposition process that holds out the promise of cutting cost of fabricating solar PV cells in half.

Graphic credit: Crystal Solar

Silicon PV Innovation: Making Solar Energy Yet More Affordable, and Commonplace

Prices for PV modules dropped between 30% and 41% in the year to September 2012 and between 51% and 64% for the two years to September 2012 in Europe depending on the technology and source, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) “Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2012” report

IRENA analysts expect further equipment cost reductions out to 2020, a development that will further enhance the affordability of solar power. The rate of decline for solar PV out to 2020 will likely be slower than that of recent years, however. That may well prove to be too conservative a judgment.

Founded in 2008 by professors Harry Atwater of Cal Tech and Eli Yabonovitch of Berkeley, Alta Devices produces the solar energy industry’s thinnest and most efficient thin-film PV cells. This mobile power technology can be integrated in an increasingly wide range of products—from special purpose and mobile consumer electronic devices to clothing accessories.

“This technology significantly extends the battery life of any application, in many cases eliminating the need to recharge from the grid because it converts more light into electricity. This provides the ultimate in portability,” Alta states on its website.

CEO Christopher Norris said management expects military applications to account for around 80% of revenue in 2013. Looking forward, Alta sees the market for solar-powered mobile phones and consumer electronic devices growing to become a $20 billion market through 2016, according to a Bloomberg News report.

Cutting Silicon PV Costs in Half

Santa Clara-based Crystal Solar has developed a vapor deposition process for fabricating solar silicon wafers that serve as the substrate for PV cells. Its “Direct Gas to Wafer” technology eliminates two entire steps in the conventional fabrication process – fabrication of polysilicon and production of polysilicon ingots – producing solar silicon wafers directly from the application of silane gas to metallurgical silicon.

This innovative process “wastes less silicon during processing than conventional approaches and greatly reduces the amount of equipment needed to make the wafers, potentially cutting wafer costs in half,” according to an MIT Technology Review report. “Wafers account for a third to a half of the cost of making a solar panel.”

South Korea’s Hanwha, an integrated solar PV supplier that’s been expanding its presence along the global value chain amid recent ructions in the industry, in September announced that it was making a $15 million strategic investment in Crystal Solar.

On January 21, Dow Corning, one of the world’s largest producers of solar silicon, announced that it is partnering with Crystal Solar in a venture to supply high-performance, silicon-based materials for photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules.

“The two companies also intend to assess options for developing high-performance building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) solutions for building and construction, focusing on both commerical and residential applications,” according to a Dow Corning press release.

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