Clean Power solar panel efficiency potential

Published on April 1st, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan


Current Solar Module Efficiency Nowhere Near Its Potential, Especially Thin-Film Solar & CPV (Chart)

April 1st, 2013 by  

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Director Dan Arvizu recently gave a keynote speech during the 2013 International Renewable Energy Conference (part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week), which I was lucky enough to attend*. His speech covered a large variety of cleantech topics, and most of the points he made have been covered extensively here on CleanTechnica. However, a couple of his points stood out to me as rather interesting and relatively uncovered.

Some of them are the foci of the interviews I conducted with him after his presentation (see the posts linked on the bottom of this article). But I decided to leave a couple of the points out of our interviews since they’re pretty straightforward and the chart presenting them is available on the NREL website, and now right here:

solar panel efficiency potential

The takeaway points from the chart are:

  1. The current efficiencies of all types of solar modules and solar cells are nowhere near their theoretical efficiency limits. (And that’s not to say the theoretical limits can’t also increase.)
  2. Thin-film solar (CdTe) is especially ripe for efficiency improvements (commentary on that below), as are concentrated photovoltaics (CPV).

Thin-film solar panels were super hot until the price of conventional solar PV fell out the bottom and took nearly complete control of the market. Nonetheless, even today, First Solar (the leading thin-film solar company in the world) is the world’s #2 solar module manufacturer and #1 solar developer. Looking at the potential for efficiency improvements of this technology, thin-film solar’s future looks even brighter. (And, FYI, I talked with First Solar’s CTO the same day that I interviewed Dan Arvizu, and he hinted at the same thing, but couldn’t provide me with details on this matter at that time.)

The general benefit of thin-film solar is that it’s cheaper than conventional PV. Its downside is that it’s less efficient, but as you can see in the chart above, its theoretical efficiency limit is equal to or better than every other type of solar besides CPV (which is very efficient but still quite expensive).

Of course, there are thin-film solar companies other than First Solar that are vying to take a bigger portion of the market (such as Japan’s Solar Frontier), and they are trying to develop better thin-film solar technology in order to do so. And improvements to thin-film solar cell efficiency are being made regularly in labs and universities around the world. So, overall, it seems that we can expect that gap between real-world efficiency and theoretical efficiency to keep closing.

I guess the question this leaves us with is which technology or technologies will improve their real-world efficiencies using low-cost materials quickly enough to dominate the solar power market in the coming decades?

solar cell efficiency records

But one thing is clear: as solar becomes more efficient and cheaper, there’s no stopping its solar power growth across the world.

For more from this jam-packed day at the 2013 International Renewable Energy Conference, also see:

*Full Disclosure: my trip to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week was funded by Masdar. That said, I was completely free to cover what I wanted throughout the week, and at no point did I feel under pressure to cover any specific events or Masdar in any particular way.

For more content from CleanTechnica’s trip to Abu Dhabi, check out our archive pages for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the World Future Energy Summit, and/or the International Renewable Energy Conference.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Pingback: Inexpensive Solar Cell Coating May Lead To Big Increases In Solar Cell Efficiency, 1 Photon Knocks Loose 2 Electrons | CleanTechnica()

  • tibi stibi

    i wonder why the difference between the shop and the research is so big.

  • SolarCurator

    Correction needed: CIGS thin film PV firm Solar Frontier is a Japanese company, not Australian, and is owned by Showa Shell.

  • wattleberry

    One expression of PV utility which I would find fascinating, especially at the top-end of the efficiency table, would be the effect it would have when mounted on vehicles instead of the usual paint/glass finishes. Because this is where space is most at a premium and the power demand so high, initial expense is much less of an issue. As well as the obvious application to road transport, what contribution could it make to trains,utilising all the rolling stock surfaces including containers, aircraft auxiliary systems and ships [containers again,plus the ship surfaces] even if only to power the automated sails.

    Just imagine the ultimate irony when applied to an oil-tanker!

    • tbert

      this has been run through by others; unless you get massive improvements in efficiency, your solar cell car isn’t going to have much oomph:

      • wattleberry

        Thanks for the very comprehensive Tom Murphy link, albeit dated almost one and a half years ago. I suppose we could take heart from the improvements already made against the theoretical maximum efficiency more than double the 30% discussed in the article. Also, the improvement in batteries in that time. Perhaps Mr Murphy might have some more views on this?

        • tbert

          Sure, he’d probably say “the current efficiencies are sufficient to the problem at hand when properly deployed”:
          As he says in that article, the bottleneck is price. So unless you’re talking about a coating for your car that is both 30+% efficient and less costly than adding capacity plus storage sufficient to the needs of your vehicle, you’re falling into the trap of holding faith in future improvements over the application of presently-working solutions.
          Don’t get me wrong; i think a low-cost, durable PV coating for your car at ~5% efficiency would be a game-changer; but I’m not holding out hope that Unobtanium will solve our energy issues.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Improvements in efficiency and solve the problem of light angle acceptance.

        Solar panels need to face the Sun in order to produce at maximum output. Car surfaces are basically flat/horizontal or vertical. Both are bad, very bad, for solar capture.

    • dynamo.joe

      The idea of ‘coating’ a train with PV is stupid (the amount of punishment freight trains take is almost literally unthinkable), but the idea of ‘roofing’ the tracks seems like it might be reasonable. Kind of like that roofing canals article.

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