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Just Ask Antarctica: Yes, Thin Film Solar Cells Work In Freezing Cold Temps (#CleanTechnica Interview)

Thin film solar cells may sound like shrinking violets — after all, they are thin — but they are about to get an acid test in the subzero climate of Antarctica, where they will equip researchers from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Polar Meteorological Science Research Institute of Chinese Academy of  Meteorological Science. Got all that? If all goes well, the cold-weather deployment could provide the thin film solar industry with the push it needs to play with the big boys of the photovoltaic world.

Why Thin Film Solar Cuts The Mustard

For those of you new to the topic, the solar conversion efficiency of thin film solar technology is far below the gold standard set by silicon-based photovoltaic solar cells.

However, thin film costs less to manufacture and it can be applied over a greater range of surfaces. Depending on the application, it could be a reasonable bottom-line alternative to conventional solar cells.

The thin film market has a lot of catching up to do, but signs of growth are in the offing. Last December, the firm Research and Markets took a look at the prospects from 2018 to 2022 and decided that a compound annual growth rate of 16% was a pretty good bet.

According to our friends over at Energy Sage, thin film solar may not gain much traction in the residential rooftop field, but it does have good potential when larger arrays are in play. That’s consistent with the Research and Markets report, which highlights microgrids as a growth area:

Increased adoption of microgrids to gain traction in the market. A microgrid can connect and disconnect from the power grid to operate in grid connected mode and island mode. The increased adoption of microgrids will enhance the use of renewable energy sources, which will drive the thin film solar PV modules market.

As for the market, Research and Markets observed:

The market appears to be fragmented and with the presence of several companies including First Solar and Hanergy Holding, the competitive environment is quite intense. Factors such as the increasing investments in renewable energy and the increased adoption of microgrids, will provide considerable growth opportunities to thin film solar PV modules manufactures.

Thin Film Solar & Cold Weather

Speaking of Hanergy, that finally brings us to Antarctica. The thin film solar leader has had some ups and downs but it is still alive and kicking, and it is very excited about Antarctica. Hanergy emailed a press release with the news:

…As per the agreement, Hanergy’s thin-film solar panels will be utilized in the equipment and observation station in the Antarctic region which will aid the meteorology research…it’s the first time thin-film solar panels will be supplied to and installed in Antarctic work stations, which proves the quality of its products.

That’s quite a jump up from Hanergy’s previous project in the Antarctic, which provided solar-powered chargers for a member of China’s mountaineering team to use for cameras and other handheld equipment.

The research station is located in East Antarctic ice sheet and Hanergy graciously provided some additional details for CleanTechnica readers:

CleanTechnica: Where will the solar panels be applied. To a building? To tents?

Hanergy: The solar panels will be applied to their observation shelters which are buildings.

CleanTechnica: What is the combined capacity of the solar panels?

Hanergy: The total capacity of the solar panels has not be confirmed yet, it will depend on the technical check-up conducted later.

CleanTechnica:Is an energy storage unit and/or microgrid also part of the project?

Hanergy: The research team already has a vendor for energy storage unit and Hanergy is going to collaborate with them for this project.

CleanTechnica: What kind of fuel does the research station currently rely on?

Hanergy: The research station mostly relies on diesel right now with supplement of silicon PV.

CleanTechnica: What is the advantage of using solar power?

Hanergy: Solar power is sustainable and doesn’t need constant fuel supply which is costly in the Antarctic. It also brings much less harm to the environment compared to diesel.

CleanTechnica: Does Hanergy anticipate that the solar panels will replace a significant proportion of the existing fuel?

Hanergy: In the short term, we are providing thin-film solar panels mainly for the portable equipment and lighting system. In the long term, the solar panels will replace the major proportion of the existing fuel, meeting the energy needs for most aspects of the research team.

Onward & Upward For Thin Film Solar

The bottom line is that solar power can take a significant bite out of diesel, even in extremely harsh conditions.

Here in the US, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is a huge fan of thin film solar. Last November the lab identified growth areas for thin film applications including aerospace and unmanned aerial vehicles, portable chargers, and range extenders for electric vehicles, so stay tuned for more on that

Follow me on Twitter.

Photo: via Hanergy.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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