Japan’s leading thin film solar manufacturer, Solar Frontier, is determined to brush China aside in the global marketplace. That’s pretty tall order, but the company has two key assets on its side. One is a new low cost production model announced earlier this fall, and the other is a new solar conversion efficiency record for its CIS thin film technology.
Thin Film Solar Records On The Rise
For those of you new to the topic, thin film solar cells are highly inefficient compared to their silicon cousins, but they easily beat silicon on manufacturing costs and flexibility, lending themselves to a wider variety of applications.
Here in the US, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory latched on to thin film back in 1999 as a pathway for introducing relatively low cost solar into the marketplace:
…we can begin to visualize the day when energy from the sun will be generating a significant portion of country’s electric power demand,” said NCPV Director Larry Kazmerski. “The technology has been proven. The task before us now is to lower the cost, and improved cell efficiency is one of the most effective ways of doing that…
Kazmerski was referencing the lab’s latest achievement, a new solar conversion efficiency of 18.8 percent for a copper-indium-gallium-diselenide thin film solar cell. Though CleanTechnica often uses the abbreviation CIGS for such cells, Solar Frontier prefers the alternate CIS, so we’ll go with that.
Solar Frontier announced its new CIS thin film solar record 22.3 percent on December 8 of this year, in a joint research effort with Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Organization. That beats out the previous global record of 21.7 percent and tops the company’s personal best of 20.9 percent, which it announced in April 2014.
From The Lab To The Real World
Like NREL, Solar Frontier also began focusing on CIS technology in the 1990’s. The company already had a solid track record in silicon solar cell manufacturing but was attracted by the “unique potential” of CIS.
According to Solar Frontier, while CIS solar conversion efficiencies are lower than silicon in the lab, CIS technology can perform under a wider range of real world conditions. Here’s the rundown from the company:
In hot climates, the temperature of a solar module can be much higher than the ambient temperature. Solar Frontier’s CIS modules have a low temperature coefficient, enabling them to generate more power than crystalline silicon panels in hot conditions.
When Solar Frontier’s CIS thin-film modules are first exposed to sunlight, they undergo the “light soaking effect.” This causes the power output of a module to rise above its initial rating.
Although solar panels are tested at 1,000 W of sunlight irradiance, in the real world this occurs less than 1% of the time. Solar Frontier CIS modules offer higher performance at lower irradiance levels.
The circuit layout of Solar Frontier’s CIS thin-film modules minimizes the influence of shadows. In partially shaded conditions where typical crystalline silicon panels would stop producing electricity, CIS modules continue to provide energy.
More And Better Thin Film Solar Cells
As for competing with China for the global solar market, last fall Solar Frontier announced that it expects to hack more than 20 percent off its thin film solar cell manufacturing costs with a new production model that tightens up the manufacturing time, lowers the cost of materials, and reduces the cost of capital expenditures.
The new model is being introduced at the company’s Miyagi plant and if all goes well it will be applied to the company’s overseas operations as well.
According to a report on the new thin film venture by Bloomberg, the company’s current cost per watt is about 50 cents, and the new process could bring that down to the 30-cent level once depreciation is factored in.
That puts Solar Frontier in a good position globally, assuming not much has changed since the first quarter of 2015, when Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance put the average in-house production costs for major Chinese manufacturers at 42 to 49 cents per watt.
What Now, ExxonMobil?
Between the new CIS record and lower manufacturing costs, Solar Frontier’s progress is also great news for the global petroleum companies Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco, as Solar Frontier explains:
…We also leverage over a century of experience in the energy sector through our parent company, Showa Shell Sekiyu, which is 35% owned by Royal Dutch Shell and 15% by Saudi Aramco.
We’re bringing this up because while Shell and Aramco are beginning to put down stakes in the renewable energy sector, ExxonMobil’s involvement in is limited to providing lubrication for wind turbines and a minor on-again-off-again interest in algae biofuel.
Instead, ExxonMobil has been attempting to leverage its considerable interests in US shale gas to market itself as a “clean energy” company. As a matter of corporate strategy that all makes sense when you factor in the company’s history of climate change denial, but unless things change, ExxonMobil may be finding itself behind in the dust while other legacy fossil companies make a successful transition to the new global energy marketplace.
Image (cropped): via First Solar.