The Netherlands-based research consortium Solliance is very excited about hitting the 10 percent efficiency mark for its new solar cell. That may seem like a very low bar compared to other efficiency records, but this particular solar cell demonstrates how emerging new perovskite-based technology could bring low cost solar cells into the marketplace.
Aside from helping to push coal aside, the new solar cell could also mean some hot competition for silicon, the longtime gold standard for commercial solar technology.
So, what’s wrong with silicon?
Low Cost Solar And Advanced Manufacturing
If you look at emerging manufacturing trends like thin film and 3-D printing, you can see the writing on the wall for silicon solar cells.
Aside from being composed of a relatively expensive material, conventional silicon solar technology relies on relatively complex, energy-intensive fabrication methods.
That’s gradually going out the window in favor of more advanced manufacturing technologies which result in higher volumes and lower costs.
Here in the US, for example, the Obama Administration launched a comprehensive initiative for advanced manufacturing that dovetails with thin film, low cost solar technology.
By the end of President Obama’s first term, the budgetary wish list for the initiative included items like a $1 billion investment by the Department of Defense that aimed to “fundamentally change the way we build things and dramatically reduce the time from design to production,” and $500 million for the Energy Department to do this:
The Budget provides more than $500 million for DOE to support R&D for advanced manufacturing technologies related to energy, such as flexible electronics for components like batteries and solar cells, low-carbon biosynthesis of industrial chemicals, and cost-effective ultra-light, ultra-durable materials for automobiles.
There was also an $87 million pie for the National Science Foundation to split:
NSF will provide an increase of $87 million in basic and applied research funding to support advanced manufacturing in promising areas such as “materials by design,” nano-manufacturing, next-generation robotics, and cyber-physical systems like smart buildings and bridges.
The New Perovskite Solar Cell Record
Perovskites (a class of synthetic crystals) have only been applied to solar technology within the past few years, but within those few years, perovskite solar cell efficiency has jumped from 3.8 percent in 2009 to 25.5 percent this year.
That’s great for small scale labwork. Now the emerging challenge is to scale up the technology and demonstrate that it can be replicated at commercial scale.
That’s what Solliance is so excited about. The company has just announced that it has been able to scale its optimized 16 square centimeter perovskite solar module all the way up to an aperture area of 168 cm2 (about 26 square inches), and achieve a solar conversion efficiency of 10 percent.
The 168 mark is important because, according to Solliance, it is comparable to the area of a typical silicon solar cell.
The module was fabricated from 25 interconnected solar cells placed on a glass substrate, and the whole thing was assembled using low cost, high volume production methods:
…the deposition and interconnection technologies used for obtaining these results are industrially available for Sheet-to-Sheet as well as for Roll-to-Roll manufacturing.
According to Solliance, the entire process can be conducted at the relatively low heat of 120⁰C or less, further helping to reduce manufacturing costs.
Next steps for the company include stabilizing the solar cell’s performance — perovskites are notoriously unstable — and boosting the efficiency up to 15 percent.
Solar Meets Glass
When you see “glass substrate” and “low cost solar” in the same sentence, that should start ringing some bells.
Aside from its application to perovskites, glass substrates are also being introduced into low cost solar technology based on the more familiar CIGS photovoltaic material.
The Job-Killing Coal Industry
The fossil fuel industry has a penchant for blaming President Obama’s clean energy policies for the demise of coal, and it is true that low cost solar cells will help chase coal out of the power-generating sector…eventually.
In the meantime, here in the US the consensus among industry observers is that low cost natural gas is the real coal killer, along with a glutted global market and a drop in global demand.
The consensus is so strong that even high profile critics of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan haven’t been able to ignore it. For example, during his presidential campaign, US Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) promised to end the “war on coal” by rescinding the Clean Power Plan, but he was careful to hedge his critique by pledging to combine “thousands and thousands” of new coal jobs with “oil and gas.”
In terms of killing jobs, the coal industry has actually been at war with itself for generations. Long before the advent of commercial solar and wind power, the coal industry has been bleeding jobs due to mechanization and other changes in technology, including the relatively new practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.
From a peak that topped hundreds of thousands after World War II, coal mining only accounts for less than 60,000 jobs today. That’s comparable to the next most recent bottoming-out, which occurred at just below the 70,000 mark in 2003, under President Bush. Coal jobs began climbing in the later years of the Bush Administration and continued climbing under President Obama, skyrocketing to a high of more than 90,000 in 2011 as the coal export market pumped up.
With the export market sliding down and cheap natural gas still flooding the market, it looks like coal communities will have a long wait before another uptick.
If coal ever tries for a comeback, it may find that the labor force has moved on. Modern coal mining skills can cross over to the solar industry and other clean tech sectors, and at least one company has found that some coal workers have experience and training that meshes perfectly with the coding industry.
Image (cropped): via Solliance.
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