The cost of thin-film solar has been dropping like a rock and it seems like a new innovation has been coming down the pipeline every week, but apparently the pace of progress is not fast enough for tech billionaire Bill Gates. In a blog post timed to the splashy launch of the his new Breakthrough Energy Coalition investor group at the COP21 Paris climate talks, Gates wrote that the solar and wind sectors are not up to providing immediate relief to global carbon overload.
Combined with Gates’s interest in nuclear energy, that viewpoint probably didn’t sit well with the solar industry in general and the thin-film solar industry in particular. With that in mind, we’re happy to pass along some insights from Markus E. Beck, a recognized thin-film leader with 25 years in the field.
CT Exclusive: The Thin Film Solar Solution
Beck is currently CTO of the thin-film solar company Siva Power. The firm contacted CleanTechnica last week to direct our attention to a CIGS thin-film solar white paper, and when we asked for an email response to the Breakthrough Energy Group, Beck provided us with the following assessment (reproduced here in full):
The Breakthrough Energy Coalition’s premise is flawed. The BEC argues that at present there are no workable solutions to tackle the world’s increasing need for energy while reducing carbon emissions at an affordable level. Studies by Goldman Sachs, MIT, McKinsey, the IEA, Shell and others provide data supporting a counter argument — i.e. the solutions exist: namely solar (PV) and wind.
Give the BEC’s premise, the solution — more resource (time and money) intensive research — is a foregone conclusion. The service industry and software heavy background of the BEC backers overlooks reality. The world needs a solution now, not in 15–20 years, in order to avoid the climate collapse while meeting the increasing energy demand. It is a fallacy to think that a new energy technology can be developed and deployed quickly. To take a new manufacturing technology to market requires fundamental R&D, the development of a supply chain for the materials and equipment as well as educating the human resources/developing the talent.
PV is the only known electricity generation that is location independent as well as scale independent. As such, it can be deployed everywhere and does not rely on high wind speeds or access to water. PV can be deployed as a single 200-300W module providing electricity for a refrigerator or a light, in systems of 3-10kW for residential homes in the developed world, to systems of hundreds of kW and hundreds of MW providing village electrification of utility-scale PV. Developing nations can conserve funds that in the old energy sector with large centralized generation require a distribution grid (costly to erect and maintain, transmission losses …) and instead can generate electricity where needed. Distributed generation (DG) of PV can be coupled with storage to provide electricity 24/7. At the same time, where a grid exists, utility-scale PV can supplement DG PV and replace fossil and nuclear electricity generation.
In much of the world, solar is already at or below grid parity, even though it is based upon older c-Si (silicon) PV technology. Thin-film solar from CdTe and CIGS, which have always had better cost structures than c-Si but have not yet been scaled to the same level, would bring costs down even further and unlock the renewable energy market globally. Many manufacturers have tried this and a couple established 1-2GW/year manufacturing capacity, but neither have leveraged the science and engineering principles that enable lowest cost, high-scale manufacturing that the world needs. CdTe proliferation is hindered by a single manufacturer accumulating all the IP. CIGS maturing through a broad industrial base, however, is poised to power the 21st century leveraging decades of R&D, a wide range of industrial experience and mature supply chain. We cannot wait for emerging technology R&D until the middle of the century; the time to invest in proven renewable energy technologies is now.
The BEC has it wrong, the solution exists. We don’t need the deviation of precious resources into the search for the elusive holy grail. What we need is to double down on expanding PV manufacturing capacity, in particular for the 2nd generation thin film CIGS technology. This approach will make every dollar spend go further and enable the world to tackle both the proliferation of energy to all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear Energy vs Thin-Film Solar
Returning to Gates, on the surface, it does seem that nuclear is a sure thing. With the Gates’s TerraPower nuclear energy company, China alone is apparently set constructing new nuclear power plants, and the global pace of nuclear power plant construction is set to accelerate, primarily in China, India, and elsewhere in Asia.
On the other hand, a number of factors could place nuclear at a competitive disadvantage moving forward. Safety issues will become an increasing concern, as the need to avoid risks related to extreme weather events could limit site selection beyond what would be accommodated today. Population growth and competition for agricultural land could also place increasing limits on the availability of nuclear sites.
Thin-film solar has the contrasting advantage of extreme scalability and adaptation to the built environment, including solar cells that can be integrated into windows, exterior walls, and rooftops. That’s a plus for resiliency as well as land conservation.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the energy storage factor, which practically did not exist just a few years ago, is emerging as a major force in the ability of solar and wind to compete with conventional energy generation, to the extent that here in the US, our armed services are beginning to introduce solar energy into combat zones as well as forward operating bases and permanent bases.
In terms of national economic policy, low-cost solar enables distributed energy generation models that focus on creating local opportunities in rural areas. Leveraging renewable energy to enable stable, thriving rural economies is a vital policy focus here in the US as well as in developing countries, involving biofuel production and wind energy in addition to solar.
Urban areas are also a strong focus of low-cost, distributed solar in the US, with a number of federal programs coalescing around the latest SunShot Catalyst competition.
Before we let go, it’s worth noting that, as recently as 2013, industry analysts predicted continued strong growth for the global coal industry. The rapid growth of alternatives (including shale gas and energy storage) upended the common wisdom in short order, and it could be that the nuclear sector is in for a surprise as well.
The Small Business Of Saving A Small Planet
For another take on the policy angle, check out the US environmental consulting firm Marstel-Day, which lists the US Defense Department among its major clients. Last week, Marstel-Day CEO Rebecca Rubin outlined the need for a cultural shift in order to achieve climate goals, arguing that small business has a vital role to play:
While I applaud big business for making significant commitments to reduce their carbon footprints, to effect lasting and profound change we need to change more than just technologies – we also need to change the culture. To facilitate that cultural shift we need small business to have an active role and serious consideration in any climate change impact regime, especially of COP21’s magnitude, because of the impact of small businesses.
While Gates does give some props to renewable energy innovation and energy storage, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition primarily focused on the conventional top-down, investor-driven, large-scale model for energy production. In the past, such models faced little competition outside of publicly owned power plants. However, just as renewable energy is giving fossil fuels a run for the money, small-scale distributed energy generation is beginning to undercut the nuclear model, and thin-film solar technology could play a powerful role in that trend.
Image (screenshot) via Siva Power.